For many years, Joseph Kesselring’s macabre 1941 comedy, “Arsenic and Old Lace,” was a staple at small theaters around the country. Now it’s much harder to find.
It’s a pleasure to remake its acquaintance in this lighthearted if slightly flawed production at Newport Theatre Arts Center. The humor is not particularly correct politically, but 1941 was a different time, and the brashness of Kesselring’s premise is fresh in today’s climate.
The play--and the film version, rewritten to Cary Grant’s advantage--concerns Brooklyn’s charmingly ditsy Brewster sisters. They have found a philanthropic purpose in life by poisoning desperately lonely gentlemen who come seeking a room to let but find a burial place in the basement with previous callers.
Add to this a nephew who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt and buries his aunts’ “yellow fever victims” in the Panama Canal locks he digs below stairs; another nephew, an escaped homicidal maniac turned by plastic surgery into a Boris Karloff clone, and--Kesselring’s joke--the worst nephew of all, a thickheaded theater critic.
Once you buy the plot’s implausibilities, it’s all a lot of fun, and director Jack Millis keeps it bright, snappy and tongue-in-cheek. If he hasn’t cautioned some of his players not to wait for laughs, he usually gives the audience reason to fill those empty spaces with their chuckles.
The central character is the critic, Mortimer Brewster, who is so likable that one forgives his obtuseness, and in a jaunty stage debut, Robert Green plays him with assured timing and an obviously innate comic flair. Teri Ciranna is just as solid as Aunt Abby, accomplishing the neat trick of making the old girl’s reasons for her hobby seem logical and very sincere. The honesty and lightness of her characterization are proof that realism is what makes comedy funny.
Jeanne Slasor is not as successful as Abby’s sister, Martha. It’s a fairly flat, one-note performance, without the intricate detail that brings Ciranna’s aunt to life. Christopher Spencer’s Teddy is also a one-note reading, with an accent that sometimes veers oddly into vaudeville German instead of the Ivy League bluster for which Roosevelt was famous.
In the supporting cast, Kristina Leach as the neighboring minister’s daughter whom Mortimer loves is excellent, again with enough honesty to make her simplistic character seem real. Warren Harker, as the evil brother Jonathan--a part actually written for Boris Karloff--understands how funny his character’s clunkiness is without overacting, and he gets his laughs with ease.
As Jonathan’s henchman Dr. Einstein, Nick Cook is also funny, and wisely doesn’t make too much of an effort to imitate Peter Lorre, who played the role in the film. Most actors can’t resist the temptation. Beau Ryan has a refreshing comic spirit as Officer O’Hara, who really wants to be a playwright, but his tendency to overplay and depend on physical shtick detracts from an otherwise valid performance.
* “Arsenic and Old Lace,” Newport Theatre Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Ends July 13. $13. (714) 631-0288. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.
Robert Green: Mortimer Brewster
Teri Ciranna: Abby Brewster
Jeanne Slasor: Martha Brewster
Christopher Spencer: Teddy Brewster
Kristina Leach: Elaine Harper
Warren Harker: Jonathan Brewster
Nick Cook: Dr. Einstein
Beau Ryan: Officer O’Hara
A Newport Theatre Arts Center production of Joseph Kesselring’s comedy. Produced by Jerry Nininger. Directed by Jack Millis. Scenic design: Christopher Wuebben. Lighting design: John Fejes. Costume design: Tom Phillips. Stage manager: Verlene Van Amber.