Arts & Culture

A nutty family with a deadly twist

From left, Debora Schwartz, Cody Pettit and Anita Schwaber in ‘Arsenic and Old Lace.’
From left, Debora Schwartz, Cody Pettit and Anita Schwaber in ‘Arsenic and Old Lace.’ PHOTO BY DANIELLE DUTRO

‘Arsenic and Old Lace” was written in 1939 and has become a classic, partly because it doesn’t fit easily into any genre. Sorcerer Productions makes the most of its timeless character, and director Danielle Dutro describes it as having “elements of farce, comedy, satire and horror.” The comedy is dark, even macabre, but funny in a creepy way just because it’s so bizarre.

Abby and Martha, the sweet Brewster sisters, are considered the nicest little old ladies in Brooklyn, but they have a secret hobby. They “lead lonely old men to peace” with elderberry wine laced with their own poisonous arsenic recipe. They live with their truly nutty nephew, Teddy, who believes he’s Teddy Roosevelt. They convince Teddy that the cellar is Panama, and he is digging the Panama Canal. What he is digging is the resting places for the sisters’ “gentlemen.”

To his horror, Mortimer, another nephew, discovers a body awaiting its trip to Panama in the window seat of his Aunt’s living room, and the sisters explain their “charity” to him. Mortimer, a drama critic for the newspaper

who is engaged to the vicar’s daughter, goes ballistic, but doesn’t know what to do.

Before he can do anything, a third nephew/ brother appears. He is Jonathan, an escapee from an institution for the criminally insane who has his own hit list behind him. With him is Dr. Einstein, a faux plastic surgeon who has remodeled Jonathan’s face to resemble that of actor Boris Karloff.

That’s the beginning of the story. It escalates rapidly from there, with plenty of laughs along the way.

This is a farce that requires acting that is a bit over the top, but not enough to become melodrama. Director Dutro and her cast manage the right tone, giving each character just enough depth to keep them from simply being caricatures.

Anita Schwaber is perfect as the dotty but dear Aunt Abby, fully convinced that she is doing the “gentlemen” a favor. Debora Schwartz is good as Aunt Martha, getting a bit more of a rush from the grisly enterprise.

Larry Kaml is a hoot as Teddy, charging up the stairs (San Juan Hill) with a shout and blowing a bugle to summon the troops. He and Bill Kirkpatrick, as the deadly Jonathan, play their characters to the hilt. Kirkpatrick, in amazing makeup, does look like Boris Karloff. (In the first Broadway production, this was a double joke, as he was played by the real Boris Karloff.) Mike Mesker is good, as always, as Dr. Einstein, Jonathan’s slightly less evil cohort.

Mortimer, the only apparently sane member of the family, is played straight by Cody Pettit. Mortimer says insanity doesn’t run in his family, it gallops. Casting Mortimer as a drama critic is an opportunity to satirize critics and theater in general. Jennifer Malman is good as his pretty fiancée, bewildered by the whole thing.

The cops, who are oblivious most of the time, are played by Eric Atwood, Kasady Riley and Seth Blackburn. Blackburn’s Officer O’Hara is a kick as he tries to get Mortimer to help him write a play.

The charming two-story set, with doors to the cellar and outdoors, was designed by Ryan Manus.

“Arsenic and Old Lace” is dated in some ways, written as it was before people were called “mentally ill.” But when it is acted with a certain weird affection for its deranged characters, as this production is, it is harmless fun.