By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out”)
For three and a half years, Joseph Kesselring was the toast of Broadway with his dark comedy Arsenic & Old Lace. The play, which opened at the Fulton Theatre in January of 1941, transferred to the Hudson Theatre in the fall of 1943 and closed in July of 1944 after an amazing 1,444 performances, which makes it the 10th most popular Broadway play in history.
Veteran horror film actor Boris Karloff was an original cast member and one of the big draws for the show as well as one of its major backers. Karloff and the other producers were interested in turning the piece into a film and got the project greenlighted in 1941 with several of the original cast members slated to join Hollywood leading man Cary Grant and his love interest Priscilla Lane in a film directed by Frank Capra. But Karloff was cautious. He knew that if he pulled out of the show, it might mean that the show’s receipts would suffer.
Also, the deal stated that as long as the show was running on Broadway, the film could not be released. Savvy producers determined box office tickets would stop being sold given a choice of seeing players on a stage versus big name stars on a screen. That’s why the film, shot in Hollywood in was held from release until the fall of 1944.
While there are several differences in the Hollywood adaptation written by twin brothers Julius and Philip Epstein, the core of Kesselring’s play remains largely intact.
Veteran director Kris Shaw was called upon to rehearse this comedy chestnut right after one of its stars, Janet Shea, had finished directing the previous JPAS production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. As Abby, one half of the sweet, but sinister Brewster sisters, she commands a presence that serves to move the work along. Helen Blanke ably follows her on stage as her sister Martha Brewster. The disarmingly charming pair reveal early on that they have been relieving elderly, lonely gentlemen callers of their pain by serving them potent cocktails of elderberry wine laced with “arsenic, strichnine and just a touch of cyanide.”
To aid them in their disposal of the bodies, they have their live-in nephew Teddy dispose of the remains by patronizing his illusionary belief that he is President Theodore Roosevelt. Whether charging up their stairs at his imagined San Juan Hill or burying his aunts’ “Yellow Fever” victims in the cellar, Louis Dudoussat turns in a comic performance that steals the show.
Their doting nephew Mortimer (Leon Contavesprie) is shocked to learn the truth, especially as he is justifiably concerned these murderous intentions cast a pall on his own lineage and might well doom his plans to wed Elaine Harper (Alison Logan), the minister’s daughter next door. Perfectly cast as the undersexed and thoroughly confused fiancée, Logan uses her innate comedic skills to realize her character fully and to interact with Mortimer, his crazed bugle-blowing brother and his sinister spinster aunts. Peter Gabb plays the role of her father, the Rev. Dr. Harper.
As Mortimer, Contavesprie is the comic foil of all the nefarious acts of the Brewster family, but his over-the-top performance really goes into high gear when his other brother Jonathan (Bryce Slocumb) shows up unannounced with a body of his own and an alcoholic plastic surgeon named Dr. Einstein (Earl Scioneaux, Jr.) for a companion.
Slocumb plays the part Karloff had on stage and while one might think of him as a proven song and dance man (White Christmas, She Loves Me), he does rise to the challenge of playing the heavy in this comical farce.
The scenes between Mortimer and Jonathan are pitched as each tries to outwit the other and wrestle control of the situation. Meanwhile, an impatient Elaine keeps Mortimer off-balanced as he tries to negotiate the choppy waters of their threatened relationship too. The aunts and Teddy keep the comedy rolling along, and a procession of bumbling police officers O’Hara (Jonathan Damaré), Klein, (Paul Bello) and Brophy (Eric Lincoln) come and go adding to the tension and expectation of the play’s premise.
Eric Porter’s massive stage set is impressive with the front door of the Brewster mansion depicted at left and the back windows facing out on the graveyard at right. JPAS has come amazingly far in filling up its stage compared to some of their earliest performances at that theater! A large portrait above the central fireplace is supposed to be a Brewster forebear, but anyone who has seen productions of Evita will recognize the visage of Juan Peron. So much for the scenic painting, which is surprising because it is credited to Shelbie Mac and Destany Gorham. It is possible the JPAS creative team was trying to recycle the painting from another production and thought no one would notice. Obviously, some did.
The lighting and sound design by Carlyle Styer was good, although sound cues sometimes went awary such as a telephone continuing to ring after it was picked up from its carriage. Small missteps can always be forgiven, especially when one considers the difficulty of mounting a production during a pandemic when not even 1/16 of house capacity is being reached.
But the problem with Arsenic & Old Lace is not found with its actors or even its creative staff. The problem is this play is 80 years old and like its 80-year-old predecessor, Our American Cousin, a three-act comedy of this type is out of step with today’s audiences.
The nature of three-act plays is that they build too slowly to sustain interest with modern audiences. The material is all too familiar so that punch lines sometimes fall flat. Back in early 1941 it was cutting edge. With eight decades in succession and a plenitude of serial killers along the way, the sharpness of its lines and its central conceit of sweet, cuddly and lovable murderesses is now somewhat dulled.
Despite its shortcomings, the experience of being in a theater during these challenging times reminds us all that the worst day ever spent in a theater is probably the best day of one’s life. JPAS provides the entertainment and the laughs in Arsenic & Old Lace. It’s up to patrons to brave the elements and the ongoing restrictions so that when the pandemic is over, there will be a company open and prepared to mount shows in the future.
The final performances of Arsenic & Old Lace will be seen at the Jefferson Performing Arts Center, 6400 Airline Drive in Metaire. Tonight’s performance is at 7:30 p.m. and the final matinees performance is tomorrow, Sunday, March 7 at 2:00 p.m.