CENTERVILLE — Arsenic and Old Lace is one of those classic shows that has witty and crisp dialogue, a funny and outrageous plot, and can get the audience rooting for the unexpected mass murders until the very end. It’s hard to go wrong with a script with as much potential as Joseph Kesselring‘s Arsenic. There’s a good reason it has been a recurring favorite in the 70 years since its first incarnation. But while CenterPoint Legacy Theatre’s latest offering, directed by husband and wife team Josh and Jennie Richardson, has the skeleton of a good show, it needs a little more time to flesh out and mature into a top-notch production.
In a nutshell for the uninitiated Arsenic and Old Lace, Mortimer Brewster (played by Bob Bedore) is a theatre critic and author who has just married his long suffering fiancée Elaine Harper (Megan Smyth), the girl next door and daughter of the local clergyman to boot. They are headed off to their honeymoon in Niagara Falls when Mortimer discovers a body in the window seat of his two dear sweet aunts’ front room. Mortimer flies into a panic, thinking that his brother Teddy (Jeremy Jonsson) is responsible, which is understandable since everyone humors Teddy’s elaborate delusions that he is actually President Theodore Roosevelt. Mortimer is desperate to keep the news of the body from his aunts Abby (Chris Brown) and Martha (Meredith Gibson) until a chance remark reveals that Aunt Abby actually put the body in the window seat and the whole sordid story comes out. Aunt Abby and Aunt Martha are serial killers who prey upon lonely old men who come to their home looking for a room to rent. As soon as the aunts discover the men have neither kith nor kin, out comes the elderberry wine (Aunt Martha’s special recipe, including arsenic, and a pinch of cyanide saved for “special occasions”). Teddy’s Roosevelt alter ego is quite useful to the aunts, as they simply tell him that the yellow fever epidemic that was rampant during the building of the Panama Canal has claimed another victim. Teddy digs another “lock” in the cellar and buries the body with none the wiser. Complicating things is the reappearance of Mortimer and Teddy’s sadistic older brother Jonathan (Jonathan Tate) who has been absent for many years, but has arrived unexpectedly looking for a place to lay low with his accomplice in crime Dr. Einstein (Nathan Riddle).
This story works because of the charm of the old aunts, and in this production Brown and Gibson are well-cast. They have the right combination of pious sweetness and outrageous sensibilities about their “calling” to help unfortunate lonely old men. Brown and Gibson are good foils for one another and made me love them despite their ghoulish hobby. The other actors were a harder sell for me. Bedore seemed to struggle to find the humor and pacing in his lines. Megan Smyth as Elaine came off as mostly whiney and petulant when the character finds herself newly married and then unceremoniously booted out the door on her wedding night. Tate as the menacing Jonathan Brewster was a non-starter. His physicality was clearly that of a body builder, which should have been threatening by his sheer size, but his costume was ill fitting and he seemed to have trouble moving about the set. Instead of terrifying, he came across as a grimacing caricature that was trying too hard, and most troublingly, far too young to be Mortimer’s older brother who plagued his life out when they were young. A strong point in the show was Richie Uminski as Officer O’Hara, the eager would-be playwright who responds to a complaint from the neighbors and ends up tying up Mortimer all night to force him to listen to O’Hara’s genius idea for a play. Uminski was endearing and quirky, and most of all funny.
Some additional touches to the script were sometimes well-done and sometimes not. At two points in the show, Teddy stands in a spotlight and recites poetry, which is an interesting touch, if a little unusual. I’m not sure what the purpose of this device was, it didn’t seem necessary to cover a scene change on the unit set. It would have worked better if he hadn’t had to resort to reading the poem from a slip of paper hidden in his hand. And in the second act, there is a chase scene full of slamming doors, running up and down stairs and in and out of windows, all set to a Scott Joplin rag which has the potential to be cute, but needs more rehearsal to smooth out the timing and speed.
It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful and fitting setting for this storyline. The Brewster sisters’ old family home is a two-story glory of Victorian wainscoting, wallpaper and dour family portraits lining the stairwell. Set designer Scott Van Dyke has created a lovely home full of knickknacks (that unfortunately had a hard time staying put) and furniture that feels appropriate for the time period. With plentiful doors and windows, and the requisite window seat suitable for hiding bodies, the set is the strongest element in the show. However, I would recommend some masking behind all those doors to keep the audience from being distracted by the sight of actors hanging out backstage when they open and shut.
The costumes (by Jennie Richardson and Michael Nielsen) were a mixed bag and didn’t match up to the grandeur of that set. Mortimer’s suit looked as if it came out of Bob Bedore’s own closet and not from the 1940’s. Elaine changed her clothes every time she came onstage, which seemed excessive. I couldn’t tell if the aunts’s dresses were specifically built for this show, or if they were pulled from stock, but again, they didn’t seem as if they belonged in that house. The aunts’ funeral weeds were quite fun, in an outrageously over-the-top “I love a good funeral, don’t you?” kind of way.
In all, Arsenic and Old Lace is an old classic full of laughs and quirky characters. CenterPoint’s production needs a little more time on its feet to smooth out the rough spots, but has plenty of potential to entertain.