Theater Review: ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (La Mirada)

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by Tony Frankel on February 2, 2020

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


Serial murder, euthanasia, slasher psychopaths, bodies buried in a crawl space, face-lifts for people trying to change their images, the cyanide poisonings of innocent strangers — it’s a click-bait tabloid-rotten world we live in. Not like the good old days, when crime didn’t pay and virtue was its own reward.

Except that all these horrors are essential ingredients in 1941’s longest lasting comedy, Joseph Kesselring’s beloved chestnut, Arsenic and Old Lace. Despite the content, it all feels harmless — and probably did almost 80 years ago. Wait, 80?!! And it’s still funny and exciting? One of those plays that has you floating out of the theater? Well, age or not, La Mirada Theatre’s production knocks it out of the park. Director Casey Stangl has found an ensemble so gifted that all we have to do is lean back in amazement and joy, so adept are they at consistent characterization while maintaining the farcical elements (part of that is the extraordinary writing in a script nursed by original producers Lindsay & Crouse). And if you can pull your eyes away from the killer comedy for a bit, take a crack at John Iacovelli’s giant living room of a Victorian Manse. This is one of those sets so grand in detail that one wishes there was a museum for such things.

It may be that 1941 audiences, vaguely aware of what Hitler was perpetrating abroad, Arsenic‘s dark humor must have seemed comparatively reassuring. After all, as we find out early on, the two lethal but sincere maiden aunts were merely giving lonely old men an early release with some spuriously spiked elderberry wine — and burying them in the basement with all the proper rituals. As with other early-1940s classics in which fantasy is preferred to fact, such as Harvey, the screwball humor deftly deflects any suggestion of a fatal reality. In this escapist realm, crazy folks have it made — they forcibly reorganize the world to make sense, whereas to the sanest among us it never quite does. (So it makes sense that, along with Harvey, Arsenic remains one of the top-twelve longest-running plays of all time.)

When Mortimer Brewster, persnickety theater reviewer (here aptly miscalled a “dramatic critic”), discovers that his sweet but dotty aunts have, without any second thoughts, quietly poisoned and buried in the cellar of their quaint old Brooklyn manse 12 old men, all his reality principles fly out the window. The aunts Abby and Martha have been assisted, unwittingly, in these mercy killings (they call them “charities”) by Mortimer’s crack-brained brother Teddy, who imagines he’s Theodore Roosevelt burying yellow fever victims in Panama. Mortimer catches on when he discovers one of the victims taking his eternal rest in the window seat. (Who says dead men tell no tales?)

Mortimer, always finding himself two steps behind the latest crisis, is furiously scheming to protect his fiancée Elaine — the girl (and minister’s daughter) next door (you know, the one who must take a shortcut through the neighboring cemetery). Not wanting Elaine to uncover the truth about the Brewster insanity (a contagion Mortimer is sure he’s carrying around), he suddenly confronts its worst extreme — the real evil of Jonathan Brewster, Mortimer’s thrill-killer brother. Jonathan’s face has been newly altered (by his plastic surgeon and accomplice, Dr. Einstein) to resemble Boris Karloff (whom the impressionable quack recently saw in a movie). Now Jonathan intends to set up his own make-over business in Brooklyn — with these “respectable” aunts as his cover.

Though the third act’s screwball contrivances ensure an accidentally happy ending, it’s only because Arsenic relies so much more on plot than character. What character development there is is accomplished by playing each stereotype’s single note with a large helping of authenticity while never shying away from a slow burn or double-take. And this cast soars at that.

Lynn Milgrim is the spirited bustling Martha Brewster and Carol Mansell is the chirpy killer-spinster, Abby, playing her as a stern but dithering delight, bubbling over with a scatterbrained indomitability as she offers the fatal wine to a hapless stranger (Mike Genovese in a hilarious cameo). As Mortimer, a theater critic who hates the theater, Jamison Jones has all the right reactions, some which build to a comic boil. Neither does he force the farce nor ration his frenzies. The gorgeous Rachel Seiferth — looking stunning in costumer David Kay Mickelsen’s brick-red dress (all the actors’ outfits are spot-on) is Mortimer’s faithful fiancée, playing Elaine smarter than her part.

Charging up the (San Juan) staircase blasting his bugle to announce a cabinet meeting, James Lancaster as Teddy Brewster does a “bully” job indeed, as does Ty Mayberry playing the unspeakable Jonathan Brewster (Mayberry’s Frankenstein-like limp-walk is hilarious). As Dr. Einstein, Ed F. Martin avoids the usual Peter Lorre imitation to focus on the psycho’s sidekick’s simple simpleton-ness — and pulls off one of the evening’s best sight gags.

Over the years, this oft-produced play has lost its adoration, largely due to the catastrophes that have taken place on community theater stages. I didn’t even make it to the second act of last year’s Arsenic at The Odyssey Theatre. But this production proves why the play is a masterpiece of black comedy. Highly Recommended.

photos by Jason Niedle

Arsenic and Old Lace
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts
14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada
Wed & Thurs at 7:30; Fri at 8; Sat at 2 & 8; Sun at 2
ends on February 16, 2020
for tickets, call 562.944.9801 or visit La Mirada Theatre

{ 1 comment }

Douglas February 9, 2020 at 12:08 am

La Mirada theater is amazing! Arsenic and Old Lace is also amazing. The actors are perfect. Both my girlfriend and I enjoyed it from the front row yesterday.

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