A theater company performing a play like Arsenic and Old Lace is the equivalent of a bar band playing “Free Bird.” It’s one of the most-produced plays in the American theatrical canon, so if you’re a self-respecting company, you have to not just do it well, you have to do it flawlessly. Once again, The Western Stage (TWS) proves it’s got chops with a tremendously tight, effortless production of this macabre, geriatric farce.
If you don’t know the story, here’s a quick summary: In pre-WWII Brooklyn, a pair of elderly sisters who consider murder a charitable Christian act regularly poison lonely old men and bury their bodies in the basement of the house. To complicate matters they have a brother who thinks he’s President Theodore Roosevelt and two nephews: a sane dramatic critic and an insane serial murderer. To move the plot and heighten the inane suspense, no less than four different cops make regular, unexpected appearances throughout the play. That’s all you really need to know.
Theatrical legend has it that playwright Joseph Kesserling originally wrote Arsenic and Old Lace as a brooding gothic drama without a hint of irony or camp. But when he let a Broadway character actress named Dorothy Stickney read his play she nearly died...of laughter. Ouch. As a result, Arsenic was revised to highlight the script’s hilarious, genre-busting elements and in 1941, a comedic classic was born. Unfortunately for Kesserling, he never wrote anything remotely as good so the revisions and credit for the play have been quietly attributed to Stickney and her husband Howard Lindsey. It’s something of an ignoble legacy, but what the hell, he made a mint. If you have to be a hack, you might as well be a rich hack.
Regardless if its origins, TWS instructor and scene shop foreman Chris Graham has directed a pitch perfect production of this accidental classic with the aid of a great set and a consistently strong cast. The acting is sensational. Roo Hornady and Susan Keenan are delightful as the well-meaning but homicidal grand dames. Their cloying charity occasionally hints at something evil without ever revealing anything. It’s more the way they tilt their heads or suck in their breaths or open their eyes wide. It’s performed in precisely the way it was intended.
Hal Peiken revisits his role as Teddy Brewster, the bugle-blowing, San Juan Hill-charging nephew, with the same manic dash and nuance that has made him something of a TWS icon. Ryan Tasker shows impeccable timing in the lone straight role as the sane nephew Mortimer, who vainly tries to gain control of the whole grotesque situation. Jeffrey T. Heyer and Jeff McGrath are brilliant as the demented sociopaths Jonathan Brewster and his plastic surgeon Dr. Herman Einstein. Heyer is genuinely frightening as the homicidal, prodigal nephew and McGrath, who sullied audiences delightfully as Tartuffe last year, performs another wonderfully distasteful turn as his toadie.
Even the supporting cast is without a weak link. This play is very, very clean. Perhaps the only problem is that it’s almost too seamless. There is little that distinguishes it from any other perfect production. A weak complaint, to be sure, but there’s nothing original about Graham’s production. Of course, that’s precisely what the packed and homogenously white-haired audience wants. This is a comfort play and it does the trick. When a character remarks, “You look just like Judith Anderson!” and the crowd erupts in laughter, anyone under the age of 60 will feel utterly ignorant. Judith Anderson, apparently, was a British actress in the ’40s (and for the record, I’m still at a loss why that’s so funny). Regardless, the rest of the play, though absolutely textbook, is really pretty funny. You want really well-produced and comforting theater? Look no further.
Arsenic and Old Lace plays Friday and Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm in The Western Stage’s Studio Theater at Hartnell College, 156 Homestead Ave., Salinas. 755-6816 or www.westernstage.org.