PLEASANT GROVE — Autumn in Utah is always a fun time for theatre fans. Local companies mount a variety of spooky, scary, and twisted productions. But it can also be nice to get some good laughs in at the theatre, too. Such is provided in abundance at the new production of Arsenic and Old Lace at the Pleasant Grove Players. This is a classic dark comedy that never fails to entertain especially when it is cast as impeccably as it is here.
Arsenic and Old Lace is a classic play by Joseph Kesselring that first premiered on Broadway in 1941. It is set in the Brooklyn house of two elderly sisters, Martha and Abby Brewster. At first, they seem to be everything that is sweet and wholesome, and their nephew Mortimer agrees . . . until he finds a dead body in the window sill.
In many ways, this is an ideal play for PG Players to put on because their small space in the PG Library suits a one-room show. Also directors Howard and Kathryn Little are pros at getting the most out of their actors and the small space. They not only direct the project but also supervise the lighting, sound, set construction and more. Their wealth of experience is obvious in the little details, like the way the sound becomes a character in the show, punctuating the jokes. For example, when anyone goes down into the cellar, the audience hears the crashing of falling down the stairs. The blaring of Teddy’s bugle to get that extra laugh in from off the stage was also effective at getting laughs from the audience.
But the biggest win for the Little’s is in the tremendous cast they have assembled. Jayne Luke and Johanne Perry are perfect as the Brewster sisters. Both of them play the parts completely straight, as if the characters are totally sure that their hobby of murdering men is justified and beneficial. (The sisters give their victims an appropriate funeral, after all!) Matthew DelaFuente is also excellent as the increasingly unnerved Mortimer. I laughed out loud at his shocked expression when he first finds the body — and then when Abby acts like it is no big deal, the beleaguered look in his eyes is hilarious.
I also really appreciate all the subtle digs Kesselring puts into the script against theatre critics and criticism in general. Mortimer is a theatre critic, and he even talks about writing his review on the way to the play (which a reputable critic would never do). But it is all in good fun, and it makes for some great laughs. Abby even says that Mortimer is getting tired of just criticizing plays: “To Mortimer the theater has always seemed pretty small potatoes. He needs something big to criticize, like the human race.” That is just funny dialogue in any decade.
The real star, however, of Arsenic and Old Lace at PG Players is one of the strangest roles in the play, that of Jonathan Brewster, Mortimer’s long lost brother who has been grafted with the face of Boris Karloff. (Jonathan was played by Karloff on Broadway and in the 1944 feature film.) At PG Players, Kirk Baxter plays Jonathan, and I have never seen a better Jonathan in the many times I have watched this play. Baxter is big, lumbering, and really looks like Karloff! But it was not just his appearance that works; his performance is just right for the dominating yet clueless lug of a role. Another winning actor is Dennis Purdie (in his 49th show for PG Players!) as Jonathan’s squirrely doctor sidekick, Dr. Einstein (not that Einstein, but plastic surgeon Robert Einstein).
I honestly do not know if the script needs Jonathan and Einstein. The antics with the sweet old ladies and Mortimer are probably enough to sustain a dark comedy, but in this production, the subplot is so well executed here I cannot complain.
The technical elements of Arsenic and Old Lace are all fine. The theatre is small but it’s a small apartment so it works. On Saturday night, the play started late, and there seemed to be some kind of behind-the-scenes disruption happening. But aside from a couple clunky transitions, the audience remained unaware. A spokesperson said in the introduction that “the show must go on” and apologized for the delay. Thankfully, the show did go on, because the evening was a delight.
Some of the supporting performers had nervousness, but that is all part of the charm of amateur theatre. Despite the rather grisly subject matter of Arsenic and Old Lace, the show is actually family friendly (all the murders are off stage). There were lots of families in attendance when I saw the show, and there was plenty of laughter throughout the evening. I highly recommend Arsenic and Old Lace at the PG Players. As my own sweet grandma would have said, “It’s a hoot.”