At the opening of Arsenic and Old Lace at Asheville Community Theatre, managing director Susan Harper pointed out that it’s a 70-year-old production. In fact, the play by Joseph Kesselring was written in 1939 and first performed in 1941. This isn’t all that important (most of us have attended plays from the early 20th century and before) except that, in keeping with the play’s original format, there are two intermissions. They are short-ish, but still. Makes for a long-ish night.
As soon as the lights go up, the audience was met with the set — the front rooms of the Brewster family home in Brooklyn, N.Y. Turns out the entirety of the play is acted in this one setting, but that’s fine: It’s a phenomenal set (designed by Bess Park), down to the most minute details — the gilt frames, the ornate wallpaper, the velvet curtains, the fussy Victorian furniture.
The first few minutes of lines — a convoluted conversation between Martha Brewster (Melissa Boyd), her nephew Mortimer (Craig Justus) and The Reverend Dr. Harper (Michael Boulos) — proves confusing, but this is more like the fault of the writer (Arsenic twists and turns, attempting to obscure a fairly simple plot in a mass of high jinx and slapstick) than of the actors. Soon enough the play finds its rhythm, revealing a delightful banter between the elderly-but-spry Brewster sisters (Martha and Abby — Deborah Compton) and their beloved younger nephew, a theater reviewer who is about to become engaged to Elaine (Elizabeth Phillips), the daughter of Reverend Harper.
Martha and Abby largely carry the play (as they should — they have the lion’s share of lines) and though they’re zany, they anchor the action which takes off at break-neck pace and at times seems to careen wildly toward the precipice of what’s believable.
Briefly: The Brewster sisters care for Teddy (Vance Weatherly), one of their three nephews, who suffers from the delusion that he is, indeed, President Teddy Roosevelt. As such, he spends a lot of time charging the staircase with his drawn sword, blowing his bugle, digging the Panama Canal in the basement and wearing a series of delightfully over-the-top outfits. (I enjoyed Teddy immensely; I’ve heard from others in the audience that they found his character to be jarring and annoying.) There’s a third nephew, Jonathan (Stephen Dougherty), a psychopath who comes home with his accomplice/facial reconstruction surgeon Dr. Einstein (Walt Heinrich) in tow, with the intent to turn the Brewster family home into his criminal lair. Meanwhile, Mortimer has discovered that his good samaritan aunts have a nasty little hobby of poisoning lonely old men. All of these unfortunate instances and realizations culminate — thanks in no small part to a bumbling want-to-be-playwright police officer (Ryan Travers) in a giddy comic romp.
Arsenic has its highs and lows. Boyd and Compton, as the Brewster sisters, are delightful and their wacky logic and cheerful murderousness provide just the right tone. Justus, as Mortimer, is a lovable lout though his utter cluelessness is hard to swallow. Dougherty, as the evil Jonathan, plays a truly frightening villain. In fact, so creepy is Dougherty that he seems to performing in a horror production and its only the bumblings and ultimate likeableness of Heinrich’s Einstein that provide a reasonable balance.
There are a few off moments due to the time period — a joke about scalping Indians falls flat. Other zingers (“There’s something about calling for a girl at parsonage that discourages any man who doesn’t like to embroider” and “Insanity runs in my family. It practically gallops.”) hit the mark.
Ultimately, Arsenic is an entertaining production that shows off hard work and a talented cast. It does feel long, and a little dated, but neither of these factors should detract from seeing the show.
Arsenic and Old Lace, written by Joseph Kesselring and Directed by Adam Cohen runs through Sunday, May 1 at Asheville Community Theatre. Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2:30 p.m. $12/$19/$22.
Cast: Deborah Compton (Abby Brewster), Melissa Boy (Martha Brewster), Craig Justus (Mortimer Brewster), Vance Weatherly (Teddy Brewster), Stephen Dougherty (Jonathan Brewster), Elizabeth Phillips (Elaine Harper), Walt Heinrich (Dr. Einstein), Michael Boulos (Reverend Harper), Ryan Travers (Officer O’Hara), Anthony Abaira (Officer Brophy), Dan Clancy (Officer Klein), Richard Hagman (Mr. Gibbs), Jim Weyhenmeyer (Mr. Witherspoon) and Doug Hauschild (Lieutenant Rooney).
Crew: Jill Summer (technical direction), Bess Park (scenic design), Jack Lindsay (scenic painting and set dressing), Ida Bostian (costume design), Taylor Collins (lighting design), Jessica Lane (properties design) and Carole Saich (stage manager).