“Arsenic and Old Lace,” Joseph Kesselring’s macabre but often hilarious take on murder, dysfunctional family life and loneliness among the elderly, complete with frequent swipes at theater critics and members of law enforcement, is, some 70 years after its original marathon Broadway run, surprisingly lively, at least as evidenced by the current rendering by Theatre A La Carte, running weekends through May 21.
Under the energetic direction of Tom Williams (who also filled a pivotal role at the last minute) most of the cast seems to be perennially moving at high speed, including, at times, the supposedly fragile maiden aunties at the heart of the goings-on.
It must be said that this is undoubtedly one of the most physical interpretations of the play on record. There isn’t a loud noise or a character’s unexpected appearance, or the sudden reminder of the need to cover one’s tracks that isn’t met with an exaggerated gasp, athletic tumble or foot-high leap into midair. And, considering the play’s popularity (it must be on a stage somewhere at every minute of every day), this interpretation generally serves it well. Only rarely is all the exaggeration overdone.
For the uninitiated, the plot revolves around sisters Abby and Martha Brewster, who take it upon themselves in their later years to help lonely old men make the transition to the other world as painlessly as possible.
Surrounding the two loonies are the rest of the Brewster family, in which insanity definitely runs rampant. There’s Teddy, who, for some unexplained reason, thinks he’s Theodore Roosevelt; he spends much of his time in the cellar digging what he thinks are locks for the Panama Canal.
And there’s Jonathan, on the lam from authorities, who has had far more plastic surgery than any of the celebrities making headlines today.
And, finally, there’s Mortimer, a drama critic who writes his reviews before he sees the plays. He spends much of this show’s running time deciding whether or not to marry his intended, the ever-patient Elaine.
Williams has assembled a wonderful cast of character actors to bring these zany individuals to life. As a kindhearted murderess, Marilyn Welsher is appropriately soft-spoken and totally convincing in the role of Abby; murderess number two, Pam Madison, is reminiscent of a young Angela Lansbury, imbuing Martha with a lively gait and expressive facial reactions.
Bernard Bosio has a grand time as the delusional Teddy, sounding as we can only imagine the former president might have. Valerine Keane brings a warranted naturalness to the role of Elaine.
Richard Weyhausen, with an assumed German accent, earns laughs as Dr. Einstein, Jonathan Brewster’s accomplice in crime. Williams is to be commended for taking over as the cynical, dimwitted critic, though he would do better to rein himself in a bit.
The real standout is Ed Schuldner, who totally inhabits the body of Jonathan, a menacing figure with stooped posture, beady eyes, and ever-expressive hands.
Shuldner’s acting is not the only notable. The set, replete with period pieces, is beautifully rendered.
‘Arsenic and Old Lace’
When: May 13, 14 and 20, 8 p.m.; May 15 and 21, 3 p.m.
Where: Community Church of Douglaston, 39-50 Douglaston Parkway
Tickets: $15; $12 for seniors and kids under 12.
Call (718) 631-4092.