REVIEW: Merry Murderesses Marvel in Abbeville Opera House’s ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’

Lisa McConnell as Elaine and Brad Christie as Mortimer in ARSENIC AND OLD LACE. Photo by Shawn Knox.
Lisa McConnell as Elaine and Brad Christie as Mortimer in ARSENIC AND OLD LACE. Photo by Shawn Knox.

BY SANDY STAGGS
DRAMA CRITIC & PUBLISHER

Insanity not only runs in the Brewster family, it practically gallops in the classic comedy “Arsenic and Old Lace” where murder, mayhem and elderberry wine merge for a tummy-tickling time at the historic Abbeville Opera House.

Written for the New York stage in 1939 by Joseph Kesselring, audiences are likely more familiar with Frank Capra’s Hollywood version starring Cary Grant and some of the original Broadway cast including those elderly Brewster sisters, played to the hilt in Abbeville by Maryanne Campbell and Lisa Edwards.

Abby (Campbell) and Martha (Edwards in a high-pitched voice) are absolutely delightful as the genteel spinster siblings who share their Brooklyn house with their nephews — our hero Mortimer (an affable Brad Christie) and his mentally-ill brother, Teddy (Patrick Lutz in a perfectly hilarious over-the-top turn) who thinks he is Teddy Roosevelt and marches about blowing his bugle and yelling “Charge!”

Mortimer is a level-headed theatre critic — a lowly profession but “someone has to do those things” as one character points out — and hastily agrees to marry his longtime neighbor and girlfriend Elaine (a lovely and witty Lisa McConnell) after discovering that his family is full of homicidal maniacs.

It seems his sweet-as-apple pie aunts have undertaken a new charity by poisoning a dozen lonesome old men with a special concoction of arsenic, strychnine, and just a pinch of cyanide mixed into their homemade wine. They identify their victims merely by name and religious affiliation (Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, etc.) and enlist Teddy to bury them in the cellar under the guise of digging locks for the Panama Canal.

This dark comedy gets more complicated when the on-the-lam,  black sheep brother,  Jonathan (D.C. Moody from the company’s “The Birds” last fall here in an unusually ominous role) arrives with an altered appearance  and his partner-in-crime, alcoholic plastic surgeon Dr. Einstein (Carl Gingola), and their own corpse in tow.  In a running joke, Jonathan’s botched operation has left him with the face of Boris Karloff, the notorious horror film actor who received top billing on Broadway playing Jonathan and was an investor in the long-running stage play.

To make matters worse, all of the antics occur right under the inept noses of Brooklyn’s finest (Dylan Seely, Amber Swann and Allen Wallin) who are all intimately acquainted with the Brewster household due to the neighbors’ frequent complaints about Teddy’s nocturnal bugle-blowing.

Abbeville’s Executive Director Michael Genevie handily helms this priceless play that, in its genesis, actually began as a serious murder mystery. He also designed the convincing Victorian-era set that has many entry points that visually allow the characters and the many sub-plots to crisscross to outlandish comedic effect. And hats off as well to Sommer DuBose and Mr. Lutz for the spot-on costumes, especially the Roosevelt uniform and the sisters’ Victorian necklines and mourning attire.

Ms. Campbell and Ms. Edwards are so irresistible and bursting with charm that no one in the audience would refuse an invitation to join them for tea or wine tasting. Christie is an impressive and funny leading man and his intimate scenes with Ms. Harper are some of the more invigorating in the play.

That said, there were a few flubbed lines on opening night and some of the dialogue delivery was not as snappy and frenetic as it should be for a work in this genre and particularly from this period. Also there were heavy some Southern accents that were slightly jarring for a story set in a New York borough, as well as an abundance of stage make-up on some male actors.

Luckily, Kesselring’s divine script compensates for these slight shortcomings that have likely already been addressed.  Through its masterful, macabre twist on morals, religion and the medium of theater itself, this “Arsenic and Old Lace” is a wholly-satisfying production that deserves to experienced by all.

“Arsenic and Old Lace” continues Fridays and Saturdays, Feb. 12-13 & 19 at 8 p.m. with 3 p.m. matinees on Saturdays, Feb. 13 & 20. The Abbeville Opera House is also hosting a special Valentine’s special offer on Saturday, Feb. 13 at 8 p.m. for $40 a couple that includes 2 tickets, chocolate and wine. Regular tickets for $10-20 are also available for this performance. Call (864) 366-2157 or visit http://www.theabbevilleoperahouse.com/.

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