Insanity doesn’t just run in the Brewster family — it practically gallops, as one member puts it. Two dotty spinster aunts euthanize their lonely lodgers, one of their nephews thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt, another is a psychopathic killer on the lam, and the third is a drama critic. Who poses the greatest menace is a matter of some debate.
Just kidding. In “Arsenic and Old Lace” at the Odyssey Theatre, the aforementioned critic, Mortimer Brewster (JB Waterman), is actually the upstanding hero. It’s been a while since critics enjoyed that kind of prestige — only one of the many ways Joseph Kesselring’s 1941 black comedy is showing its age.
While superb production values elevate Elina de Santos’ staging above the standards of innumerable community theater revivals (Bruce Goodrich’s two-story Victorian interior design is a stunner), for contemporary audiences the show may more likely provoke head-scratching than nostalgic affection.
Take the central recurring gag about a botched plastic surgery that’s left the fugitive villain (Gera Hermann) looking like Boris Karloff. It was funny in the original Broadway production when the role was played by Karloff himself, at the height of his horror film fame. Not to diminish his historical significance, but nowadays Karloff isn’t exactly trending, and even more problematically, Hermann looks nothing like him. (Hermann more closely resembles Bela Lugosi, complete with a vaguely Slavic accent in a bewildering touch of meta-obscurity.)
Another prominent case of dated topicality: The exploits of Theodore Roosevelt may have been familiar to the play’s original audiences, but how many of today’s viewers will recognize the delusional Teddy’s charge up the family staircase as a reference to San Juan Hill, or his allusions to “digging the Panama Canal” when disposing of corpses, much less the references to his presidential successors Taft and Wilson?
Rather than innovating to make the text more relevant, the staging is respectful and faithful to a fault — and the fault, dear reader, is in our stars. Selling this as a strictly period piece requires a very specific style of comic delivery that is in short supply, despite the professional credentials of a 12-member cast.
Granted, drama critics can be a pretty humorless bunch, but Waterman’s Mortimer shows little manic desperation as he dutifully tries to juggle his (entirely justifiable) distaste for attending the theater, his impending marriage to the local minister’s daughter (Liesel Kopp, trying too hard to modernize a caricature) and dealing with the family skeletons literally buried in the basement. His aunts (Jacque Lynn Colton, Sheelagh Cullen) are suitably gleeful in plying their victims with poisoned elderberry wine but never got the memo that they’re also supposed to be irresistibly sweet and lovable — in fact, that’s the whole point.
In his too-brief standout performance as a cop who’d rather seek Mortimer’s help writing a play than fighting crime, Michael Antosy leans into the loopiness with the abandon of a seasoned character actor. As an inebriated plastic surgeon, Ron Bottitta finds his way to some nicely timed sarcasm and deft physical comedy in the production’s far more successful second half. It’s a tough slog getting there, though.
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‘Arsenic and Old Lace’
Where: Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, plus 8 p.m. Sept. 28 and Oct. 5; ends Oct. 8
Information: (310) 477-2055 or www.odysseytheatre.com
Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes
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