There's a moment late in this comedy when the hero, Mortimer Brewster, is trying to silence his boisterous brother, who's convinced that he is Teddy Roosevelt. T.R. wants to issue a presidential proclamation. Mortimer suggests an alternative -- a "secret proclamation."
While many of the good one-liners in Arsenic and Old Lace got laughs on opening night, this one didn't. Having been asked to chuckle over a long string of amusing contradictions, the audience apparently developed humor fatigue.
All of which suggests a reason that Joseph Kesselring's warhorse of a farce may no longer seem as outrageous as it did at its 1941 debut, when the equation of little old ladies and murderers seemed intrinsically funny. Insane folks stowing corpses in the basement -- anymore, it's not such a far-fetched concept.
There's a lot of good comedy to be mined from Arsenic, but the play takes too long to set up the jokes. The opening scene between a staid pastor and the murderous old maids, for example, creaks along with the weight of exposition. The audience seemed unsure: When would the fun start?
It began with some good acting that overcame the play's weaknesses. For instance, as the ingenue next door, Angela DiMarco makes the most of a character without much to do, the preacher's daughter Elaine, who's soon supposed to marry the leading man. These two face off in several anti-courting scenes -- Mortimer is always trying to get rid of Elaine so he can cover up his aunts' penchant for poisoning. When her fiance condescends to her yet again, Elaine combats his sexism by questioning whether, as a husband, Mortimer will ever be adequate. DiMarco delivers the line with pitch-perfect sarcasm.
As the Roosevelt nutcase, Michael Weaver blends his familiar comic techniques to create a maniac. Whether he's charging up the staircase he regards as San Juan Hill or shamelessly mugging for the audience while descending into the cellar-graveyard, Weaver impersonates Mr. President hilariously.
As Jonathan Brewster -- the part taken in the 1944 Frank Capra movie by Raymond Massey, and onstage by Boris Karloff -- Peter Murray emanates menace. With glaring eyes over an uplifted chin, a demonic laugh, arms stiffly held slightly out at his sides, he's the kind of scarface villain we love to dread.
And scared of him his two precious aunties are. Part of the comedy is that this elderly duo, who think nothing of dispatching complete strangers and then planting them in shallow graves downstairs, get the heebie-jeebies at scary movies and cringe every time their man-in-black nephew growls. The Jonathan character acts as a lightning rod for our fright. By comparison, Abby and Martha's offering widowers some elderberry wine "with a kick" seems innocuous. We see the two old ladies terrorized by Jonathan, and we're creeped out by him ourselves. Bela Lugosi once played this role, too; Murray curdles the blood just as well.
From his first entrance, looking dapper in a ventless gray double-breasted suit, Steven L. Barron humorously adapts for the stage the kind of screwball comedy Cary Grant did in close-up for the screen. When he blunders upon the first hidden corpse, the movie star simply has to elevate his eyebrows and show us the whites of his dumbfounded eyes; for the same moment, Barron has devised a sort of redoubled slow-motion double-take more suited to the playhouse. Barron has ample energy and lankiness for all the exasperated running about his character has to do. If anything, early in the evening, he might consider reining it in. He's at maximum flummox level in the early scenes, leaving him nowhere to go later on. Still, in the squeaky voice and crestfallen antics he uses to respond to the chaos around him, he demonstrates that he can do vocal as well as physical comedy. Barron delivers a masterful comic performance.
There are, indeed, many examples of accomplished comedy in this production: Murray's exquisite display before his victim of the instruments of torture -- and then their hasty removal when the coppers show up; some deft methods of corpse disposal; the matter-of-fact way in which Alis Parris (as Martha Brewster) informs her nephew that of course there are more dead men downstairs; Barron's mad scrambling to shut doors, all flailing limbs and panic.
The timing and execution of these bits will only get better as the run proceeds. Interplayers' elongated thrust stage, however, makes for some awfully long exits. Actors need to sprint about 20 yards, it seems, just to make another hairsbreadth escape, and the timing suffers.
At nearly three hours (with two intermissions), director Joan Welch's production is simply too long to sustain high-intensity hijinks. Our smile muscles tighten; late in the evening, we've grown tired of being amused.
And yet the audience rewarded Friday night's performance with a standing ovation. We get to see the promise of a little murder and mayhem -- never actually shown -- and nobody really gets hurt. It's ideal. Since all of us have fantasized about liquidating a few loudmouths, we all secretly sympathize with the wholesome but homicidal Brewster sisters. They just act out a little more, that's all.