“Arsenic and Old Lace” Reviewed by Dan Berkowitz

Serial killers – three of them. A doctor who operates while inebriated. A psychotic who’s convinced he’s a dead President of the United States. And a drama critic who writes his review on the way to the theatre.

These are among the elements of a warm and fuzzy comedy that’s family-friendly. Yes, it is. Even when you toss in the slightly slutty minister’s daughter – at least she doesn’t say any bad words.

Joseph Kesselring’s Arsenic and Old Lace is what’s known in the theatre as a “chestnut” – the kind of play almost everyone knows, or has heard of, or has actually been in, because nearly every high school and/or college in the country has done it. There’s a reason plays such as this are done and done again – they’re well-written, with juicy parts for actors, and just enough surprises and outrageous bits that make them seem fresh.

(L-R) Jacque Lynn Colton, JB Waterman, Sheelagh Cullen. Photo: Enci Box

The play, which made its Broadway debut in 1941, and was later turned into a hit 1944 movie directed by Frank Capra and starring Cary Grant, is the story of the Brewster sisters, Abby (Sheelagh Cullen) and Martha (Jacque Lynn Colton), who live together in “one of the oldest houses in Brooklyn.” The house was handed down to them by their father, who made a fortune in patent medicines despite being, well, let’s just use the word “eccentric.”

(L-R) Alex Elliott-Funk, Sheelagh Cullen, Alan Abelew. Photo: Enci Box

They share the house with their nephew Teddy (Alex Elliott-Funk) – a good-natured psychotic (did I just write that?) who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt – and, occasionally, their nephew Mortimer (JB Waterman), who moved to Manhattan to become theatre critic for a newspaper, but still returns to Brooklyn because he’s devoted to his aunts. He also returns because he’s more than devoted to – “besotted with” is perhaps a better phrase – Elaine (Liesel Kopp), the above-mentioned minister’s daughter, who lives with her widowed father next door, beyond the cemetery.

JB Waterman and Liesel Kopp. Photo: Enci Box

It’s just another late afternoon/ early evening at the Brewster house, with Teddy charging up San Juan Hill (the staircase), Abby and Martha busy in the kitchen, and Mortimer preparing to take Elaine to the theatre, when – searching for a manuscript – Mortimer happens to open the top of the window-seat and discovers… a body. A dead body. A dead body which shouldn’t be in the window seat. Of his aunts’ home. Or anywhere, probably. Oh my…

Mortimer immediately leaps to the conclusion that Teddy has vaulted from being a good-natured psychotic to being a bad-natured psychotic, but Abby and Martha assure him that’s not the case: they’re the ones who put the body in the window-seat. Well, actually, it was Abby who put this one in there by herself, because Martha was out and Abby had to put him somewhere because the minister was coming to tea…

And so the madness begins. For yes, it seems the Brewster sisters have, for some years, taken it upon themselves to “bring peace” to lonely old men by offering to rent them rooms, then plying them with elderberry wine spiked with poison. When the gentlemen croak, the ladies bury the bodies in the basement, in “locks” of “the Panama Canal” dug by – you guessed it – Teddy Roosevelt, who believes all the stiffs are victims of yellow fever who must be buried as quickly as possible.

(L-R) Gera Hermann, Liesel Kopp, Ron Bottitta. Photo: Enci Box

The madness gets madder when Teddy and Mortimer’s long-absent brother Jonathan (Gera Hermann) – most definitely a bad-natured psychotic – returns to the house with his sidekick, Dr. Einstein (Ron Bottitta). No, not that Dr. Einstein. This unsavory pair is on the lam after escaping from a prison in Indiana, and need a place to hide out while plastic surgeon Einstein gives Jonathan a new face – he got the one he has now when the good doctor operated under the influence, and it’s not pretty.

There follow threats and counterthreats, a little bondage, a second dead body, a marriage proposal, visits by various neighborhood cops, and a last-minute revelation about Mortimer’s parentage which causes a whoop of cockeyed jubilation. It’s all quite silly and it’s all great fun.

The actors are game – the ones mentioned above are augmented by Michael Antosy, Darius De La Cruz, Mat Hayes, and Yusef Lambert as policemen, and Alan Abelew playing several parts – and are directed with proper zaniness by Elina de Santos.

The Cast. Photo: Enci Box

The spectacular set by Bruce Goodrich is ably lighted by Leigh Allen, with nicely-done costumes by Amanda Martin. If I have a quibble, it’s that I wish the sound by Christopher Moscatiello were a touch louder – I can’t believe I actually said that – to help set the quirky mood.

Arsenic and Old Lace isn’t “cutting edge” in any way – even the murders are done with poison, not cutlery – but it’s a good, solid, old-fashioned play being given a good, solid, old-fashioned production. Warm and fuzzy is kinda nice, come to think of it.

Arsenic and Old Lace
Written by Joseph Kesselring
Directed by Elina de Santos

Through October 8

Odyssey Theatre
2055 S. Sepulveda Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90025
Tickets: 310-477-2055 ext. 2 or www.OdysseyTheatre.com


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