Arsenic goes to the dark side
BODY SHOTS: Jenkins, Morgan and Alley juggle cadavers with mixed results.
There’s some irony in the coincidence of national events and the Clarence Brown Theatre’s selection of Arsenic and Old Lace as the first show of its new season. Theater history purports that, in 1941, New Yorkers found some comfort from the trauma of the escalating European war in Joseph Kesselring’s irreverent black comedy. Despite the many laughs the CBT’s production of Arsenic inspires, its twisted theme of two old ladies liberating sad old men from their lonely, pathetic lives via poisoned wine struck me as morbidly depressing—an unfortunate side effect of black comedy.
The show brings together some of the most enjoyable and talented CBT alumni ever to walk its stage. Most remarkable here is Jayne Morgan, whose cheerful, open expression conveys the aged aunts’ purest motives and complete obliviousness to their criminality. Her round face and chipper delivery go far in establishing the play’s tone. Not one iota of doubt enters Aunt Abby Brewster’s mind that what she and her sister Martha (played with sweet, flirtatious ditziness by Carol Mayo Jenkins) do to old men is really for the sake of the men’s souls. The Brewster sisters aren’t killing as much as delivering the poor creatures from desperate lives into a better afterlife—“that peace,” they call it. And that’s funny, if you’re able to see it that way.
The situation comedy gets underway when the Brewsters’ estranged nephew Jonathan (a wholly creepy Christian Kauffman) appears unannounced at the sisters’ Brooklyn walk-up with his Igor-like partner Dr. Einstein (Tony Cedeño). Jonathan is an amoral serial killer who has left victims in his worldwide wake, along with his original face; Dr. Einstein is a plastic surgeon specializing in mug-manipulation for those who don’t wish to be recognized. Jonathan’s troubled past includes a childhood stint at his aunts’ home, and their memories of his sociopathic behavior keep them from welcoming him with open arms.
While Cedeño, frequently a source of comedic relief on the CBT stage, hobbles around with cartoonish malevolence, Kauffman strides monster-like, his almost 7-foot frame towering menacingly over everyone in his shadow. Rarely at Clarence Brown is a make-up artist given the job of making an actor’s face truly monstrous, and in this case to such freakish effect. Kauffman, to his credit and the viewers’ skin-crawling discomfort, contorts his malleable face into wicked smiles and ghoulish grimaces, and his eyes go buggy as if threatening to pop out like one of those rubber Martian toys.
If Abby and Martha were murderers in the classic sense, they would put this maniacal madman out of his misery and bury him in the cellar. Instead, out of some fear and lingering family loyalty, they humor their visitors and try to hurry them along. Jonathan and the doctor, however, have plans to set up a sort of cosmetic surgery clinic for criminals in his late grandfather’s upstairs laboratory.
Arsenic ’s straight man, the only relative who isn’t out of his tree, is nephew Mortimer Brewster (David Brian Alley), a drama critic who is thoroughly stunned to find out what his sweet old aunts are perpetrating in the venerable home (Robert Cothran’s set design is spectacularly detailed). Mortimer spends the play’s first half in a tizzy about the body in the window seat (Mr. Hoskins, “a Methodist,” says Miss Martha), and the second half figuring out how to get the police to haul away his psychotic brother without also finding out about his aunts’ 12 old men buried in the cellar.
Most unambiguously humorous is Teddy Brewster (Ron Venable), Jonathan and Mortimer’s brother, who believes he is Teddy Roosevelt. “He’s so happy being Teddy Roosevelt,” say his aunts, who indulge his delusion. And although the former president couldn’t be farther from our current public consciousness, Venable’s impersonation rings brilliantly, a sort of classic caricature of insanity, and one that doesn’t involve dead bodies. Teddy charges up the stairs—“The stairs are always San Juan Hill,” says one aunt—calls cabinet meetings with his bugle, and digs the Panama Canal in the cellar. The body-sized trenches then become graves for the ever-mounting count of “yellow-fever” victims.
In a hilariously self-referential moment, Jonathan and Dr. Einstein ensnare Mortimer as he describes the play he’s just seen, a doozy called Murder Will Out , in which the oblivious protagonist gets tied up by two villains. “Haven’t you learned anything from the plays you’ve seen?” Dr. Einstein asks. Apparently not, and that’s the fun of it.
The clever comedy of Arsenic holds up surprisingly well after 64 years. Dark humor can be timeless, but it takes a certain unpredictable timing to strike a receptive audience. The depths of unwavering innocence conveyed by Morgan and Jenkins temper the shock of such macabre circumstances. And because everyone’s funny bones are struck differently, it’s hard to say who will laugh heartily and who will be left cold.
Rendered touchy and somewhat humorless by the recent natural disaster, I identified overly much with the old men whom—with no families, no homes, no obvious things to live for—were deemed by these proper, Christian ladies as the needy objects of their mercy. But what they didn’t understand—and maybe this is an unintended moral to the story—is that when you don’t have anything left, at least you have your life.
What: Arsenic and Old Lace