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
Despite all the jolly "Fa-la-la’s" and chortling Santas,
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
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.
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
elderberry wine to lonely gentlemen, thus putting them out of their
misery. Their delusional nephew Teddy (Edward Keith Baker), who
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
When visiting nephew Mortimer (Anthony Cummings), who
works as a drama critic, discovers the realities behind Abby and
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
serial killer, shows up at the door along with plastic surgeon,
(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
the women as stereotypes, both Holbrook and Bensinger manage to inject
enough personal idiosyncrasies into their parts to make their
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
sidekick, Dr. Einstein, serves as a buffering agent, keeping the
from overtaking the show. Allison Nega is quite believable as
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
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
of the past few months, it is a correlation that is hard to ignore.
— Jack Florek
120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, 215-785-0100. $27 to $34. Performances
continue to Sunday, December 16.
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