Corrections or additions?

This article by Jack Florek

was prepared for the December 12, 2001 edition

of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Review: `Arsenic and Old Lace’

There’s nothing like a dozen murders to spice up the

holiday season.

Despite all the jolly "Fa-la-la’s" and chortling Santas,

anyone

who spends time in a Jersey mall between late November and the end

of the year knows that "Peace on earth, good will toward men"

is a nice sentiment with little practical application. While most

of us are doubtless well-intentioned, it is nearly impossible to keep

up the good cheer while battling an SUV for one of those hard-to-find

parking spaces.

A casual check of theater listings across the nation will demonstrate

that "A Christmas Carol" — the perennial feel-good classic

— is still the most popular holiday play in the United States.

But if it is a truism that our theater is a reflection of our lives,

then why do so many theaters turn a blind eye to the darker side of

the annual "Ho ho ho?"

Yet relief has arrived. Bristol Riverside Theatre’s current production

of Joseph Kesselring’s dark comedy "Arsenic and Old Lace"

offers a wickedly refreshing alternative to the annual Scrooge-a-thon.

Performances continue through Sunday, December 16.

Of course, "Arsenic and Old Lace" is not really a Christmas

play. Bristol Riverside Theatre’s producing director, Susan D.

Atkinson,

who is also director of the play, has made some slight adjustments

to the script, setting the events in December, rather than in the

early autumn, as was the case in the original. Also, Thom Bumblauskas’

set design, rich in deep Christmas reds, exudes a kind of coziness

that immediately lends a holiday feel to the production.

Most people are probably already familiar with "Arsenic and Old

Lace." Not only is it a popular production for community theaters,

but Frank Capra’s excellent 1944 film version, starring Cary Grant,

remains a late-night TV favorite.

Abby and Martha Brewster (Ruby Holbrook and Mimi Bensinger) are two

charming elderly ladies whose idea of good deed doing is serving

poisoned

elderberry wine to lonely gentlemen, thus putting them out of their

misery. Their delusional nephew Teddy (Edward Keith Baker), who

believes

he is Teddy Roosevelt and has a penchant for running up the staircase

shouting "Charge!," has obligingly buried all 12 of Abby and

Martha’s victims in the basement, thinking he is digging the Panama

Canal.

When visiting nephew Mortimer (Anthony Cummings), who

works as a drama critic, discovers the realities behind Abby and

Martha’s

eccentric lifestyle, he quickly pushes his girlfriend, Elaine (Allison

Nega), out of the house and devises a plan to keep his elderly aunts

out of jail. But soon his brother Jonathan (Richard White), a

notorious

serial killer, shows up at the door along with plastic surgeon,

Einstein

(Jerry Perna), seeking to use the house as a hide-out. Mortimer sees

through Jonathan’s plan, and decides to have his brother arrested,

but police officer O’Hara (John Jezior), a frustrated playwright,

is more interested in discussing his idea for writing the next great

American play than making any arrests.

Anthony Cummings does a fine job as Mortimer, the only sane member

of the Brewster family, and a role that is crucial to the production’s

success. Mortimer is the play’s anchor, the character the audience

needs to identify with in order for the play to succeed. Mortimer

must be funny, yet sane; rational, but never a stick-in-the-mud. With

all the loopiness of the other characters surrounding him, it is easy

for an actor to become swept away. Cummings is steadfast, serving

the play precisely as required, displaying an easy comic flair that

is very likable and filled with craft.

Ruby Holbrook and Mimi Bensinger are equally successful as the elderly

sisters, Abby and Martha Brewster. Although the play borders on

presenting

the women as stereotypes, both Holbrook and Bensinger manage to inject

enough personal idiosyncrasies into their parts to make their

characters

satisfying.

Edward Keith Baker displays a real comic aptitude as Teddy, allowing

his character to be both amiably human and outrageously goofy at the

same time. This is no easy task. Edward White as Jonathan brings a

menacing air to the show that is truly palpable. Jerry Perna as

Jonathan’s

sidekick, Dr. Einstein, serves as a buffering agent, keeping the

creepiness

from overtaking the show. Allison Nega is quite believable as

Mortimer’s

girlfriend; both she and Cummings bring a pleasant sexual chemistry

to the evening’s goings-on.

Best of all, BRT’s production of "Arsenic and Old Lace" seems

hardly directed at all. Characters move effortlessly about the stage,

never doing a thing that doesn’t feel intrinsically right. Also, the

story is easy to follow, motivations are clear, and despite two

intermissions,

it never seems to bog down. All this is to say that Atkinson has done

a good job directing the play.

"Arsenic and Old Lace" works nicely as an alternative to the

usual sugary holiday fare. Yet by adjusting the play’s timeline from

September, 1941, to the December 1941 holiday season, the play becomes

aligned in the mind, almost unconsciously, with the attack on Pearl

Harbor that occurred on December 7, 1941. And given our national

trauma

of the past few months, it is a correlation that is hard to ignore.

— Jack Florek

Arsenic and Old Lace, Bristol Riverside Theater,

120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, 215-785-0100. $27 to $34. Performances

continue to Sunday, December 16.


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