Arsenic and Old Lace
Written by Joseph Kesselring
Directed by Laurie Gardner
At the Leverett House Old Library
Through this weekend
SURELY EVERYONE by now has seen either the 1944 film version of Arsenic and Old Lace starring Cary Grant or one of the myriad productions of this silly black comedy that have infested every American high school. Yet here it is again, on a Harvard stage, and it is amazing not only that someone felt the need to stage it one more time, but that it is still funny.
Why Arsenic was ever funny seems a mystery. This alleged black comedy is really a Victorian comedy of manners in disguise. Mortimer Brewster and Elaine Harper are in love, but the antics and machinations of his relatives threaten to destroy the romance. The twist is that his relatives are all crazy, and some of their antics are murderous. Ha ha.
For instance, Mortimer's sweet old aunties, Abby and Martha, have been poisoning lonely old men as an act of charity. Mortimer's brother Teddy thinks he is Teddy Roosevelt. And as if those three weren't enough, Mortimer's estranged brother Jonathan, an international criminal and Boris Karloff lookalike who still bears a childhood grudge against Mortimer, comes home just in time to make more mischief. Toss in Jonathan's sniveling sidekick Dr. Einstein, a mad (of course) and incompetent plastic surgeon, and some (fortunately) clueless cops, and the chaos is complete.
Yet the Leverett House production manages to transcend the play's ludicrous premise and make its audience laugh. Part of the reason is that the play does have some indestructible one-liners, like Mortimer's "Insanity runs in my family. In fact, it practically gallops." Even the relentless attacks on theater critics are funny. Really.
Most of the credit, though, belongs to the actors, who all overplay to the hilt. Adam Schwartz creates a perfectly blustery and "bully" Teddy Roosevelt--er, Teddy Brewster. Josh Frost is chilling as Jonathan, and thanks to Melanie Deas' make-up skills (I hope), he really does look like Boris Karloff. As the old aunts, Molly Bishop and Jennifer Donaldson find a surprisingly childish glee in their chemical activities.
The show's anchor is clearly Adam Albion. His Mortimer rivals Cary Grant's in the number of double-takes per minute. During the performance I saw, he was in such control of both his character and the show that he was able to ad lib a joke about Princeton that even the many Princetonians in the audience must have laughed at.
Even the actors in smaller roles play them with relish. Only Charles Keckler, in the Peter Lorre role of Dr. Einstein, hits a sour note because of the incomprehensible polyglot accent that mars his Lorre imitation.
Still, minor faults like Keckler's delivery, or the Cambridge Police patches on the Brooklyn policemen's uniforms, are forgivable. Even such larger faults as the play's mindless premise are forgivable because Arsenic and Old Lace is still amazingly funny.