Arsenic and Old Lace

At Lowell House

Arsenic and Old Lace, Joseph Kesserling's well-traveled farce about a couple of homicidal spinsters is a gold mine of potential laughs. The current Lowell House production gathers more than a good handful of surface nuggets.

One member of the cast knows where to prospect and she alone is enough to make the show worth seeing. Her name is Meg Meglathery, and she plays one of the weird sisters. She is marvelous. Tart as some of her own quince jam and so tiny that she is virtually two-dimensional, Miss Meglathery bustles self-containedly about the stage amid heavy traffic of corpses, cops, criminals, and intended victims. Her voice is crystal clear, her demeanor is perfect and her timing is unfailingly accurate.

The other sister, played by Martha Bayles, complements the little conspiracy very well herself. She is preposterously large while her partner is preposterously small. They play against each other skillfully, whether they are interring a body in their cellar mortuary or pouring another glass of lethal elderberry wine.

The rest of director Mary Belle Feltenstein's cast is not up to their standard. Bob Barnard is weak as Mortimer, the sisters' drama-critic nephew. The part is very difficult. Mortimer has to be the sane man in a houseful of lunatics and cadavers, registering a new variety of horror or shock every time a grisly surprise is sprung on him. But Barnard simply hasn't the range of expression he needs to make the most of it.

The other actors are uneven, and Miss Feltenstein aparently wasn't able to cure them of bad habits such as talking through laughs, hurrying, and overplaying. Ray Healey as Mortimer's monstrous brother Jonathan is capable if monotonous; Jim Thomason as his plastic surgeon sidekick is also competent and sometimes quite good. John Lewis doesn't add much to the part of brother Teddy (who thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt), while Judith Anderson is strong as Elaine, Mortimer's girlfriend.

The Lowell dining hall is strewn with the bones of sets that didn't make it, but designers Sergio Modigliani and Bob Harlow have constructed a fine, massive edifice that is one of the show's best points.