Two murderous old ladies, a Theodore Roosevelt impersonator, a Boris Karloff look-alike and a theater critic in love inhabit the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble’s revival of Joseph Kesserling’s infectiously funny and frenetic farce ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, directed by Elina de Santos.
In 1939, Kesserling conceived the idea for the play, most likely based on real-life events in which a woman named Amy Archer-Gilligan took boarders into her house in Windsor, Conn. and poisoned them for their pensions.
But Kesserling insisted the inspiration for his “murderous old ladies” plot was his gentle old grandmother, whom he called “the sweetest thing in the world,” amusing himself in dreaming up the worst and most unlikely hidden vice for her – murder!
The charm of the piece lies, as it does in all great farces, in the collision of the everyday logic of rational people with the logic of the inhabitants of what seems to be an alternate, but parallel, universe operating under completely different rules.
On the more normal spectrum are J.B. Waterman as Mortimer, the drama critic who hates theater, and Liesel Kopp as Elaine Harper, the minister’s daughter from next door whom he wants to marry. She is bound and determined to make the wedding happen, even through all of Mortimer’s many mood swings due to the family mayhem happening around him.
But just as Mortimer ventures to share their good news with his seemingly harmless little-old-lady aunts (the dynamic duo of Jacque Lynn Colton as Martha Brewster and Sheelagh Cullen as her sister Abby), he discovers the sisters’ proclivity for murdering lonely old men, with their special formula of Elderberry wine, as an act of charity.
All four actors are magnificent and hysterically off-beat throughout the play, making their character performances a joy to watch, with costumer Amanda Martin keeping the 1940s ever-present with beautifully styled ensembles for Kopp and lacy, old-fashioned creations for the maiden and murderous aunts.
Added into the twisted Brewster clan are Mortimer’s crazy brothers Teddy (Alex Elliott-Funk) who thinks he’s Theodore Roosevelt and often charges up the staircase on the multi-level set, beautifully designed by Bruce Goodrich and lit by Leigh Allen, as if it was San Juan Hill, and the homicidal maniac Jonathan (Gera Hermann) who looks like Boris Karloff thanks to phony plastic surgeon Dr. Einstein (Ron Bottitta) who has changed Jonathan’s appearance to hide him from the police. Adding to the mayhem, these two just happen to arrive with another dead body in tow while the Brewster sisters have one hidden in the window seat as well as 12 more buried in the basement. The result is a mix of laugh-out-loud hilarity, family one-upmanship, and macabre mayhem!
Also in the ensemble are Alan Abelew, Michael Antosy, Darius De La Cruz, Mat Hayes and Yusef Lambert who tackle the many other roles necessary to make this well-loved farce sizzle, including four police officers whose investigation of the crime scene leaves much to be desired, the good Reverend, as well as two of the aunts most recent additions to Teddy’s basement Panama Canal burial site.
“The irreverence in this play is just delicious,” says director de Santos. “It’s one of the funniest plays I’ve ever read, and it plays like crazy. Don’t we all just need a good laugh these days?” And I guarantee she has achieved that goal and will keep you laughing from start to finish, proving all the reasons why both the stage play and Frank Capra’s movie, starring Cary Grant as Mortimer, have lived on healthily to this day and, no doubt, will continue to do so for many years to come.
Performances of Arsenic and Old Lace take place on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Oct. 8. Additional weeknight performances are scheduled on Wednesday, Sept. 13; Thursday, Sept. 28; and Thursday, Oct. 5, all at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25 on Wednesdays and Thursdays; $30 on Fridays; and $34 on Saturdays and Sundays. Children ages 8-12 are $10. There will be two “Tix for $10” performances: Wednesday, Sept. 13 and Thursday, Oct. 5. The third Friday of every month is wine night at the Odyssey: enjoy complimentary wine and snacks and mingle with the cast after the show. The Odyssey Theatre is located at 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles. For reservations and information, call 310–477-2055 or go to OdysseyTheatre.com.