Theater Review: 'Arsenic and Old Lace'

By: 
Ben Miles

Written in 1939 by American dramatist Joseph Kesselring, “Arsenic and Old Lace” premiered on Broadway in January of 1941. The film adaption, directed by Frank Capra and starring Cary Grant, made its debut in 1944.. Now this classic dark and corny comedy is on the main stage of the Long Beach Playhouse, where it was produced 74 years ago, in 1943.

Efficiently directed by Jeff Brown, with an elegant set design by Greg Fritsche and period perfect mid century costuming by Donna  Fritsche, this “Arsenic and Old Lace” –  though fortified with admirable stagecraft, including Sean Gray’s lucid sound design, Kelsey McGill’s evocative lighting scheme and an admirable and capable cast – is still undermined by Kesselring’s nonsensical script.

Rather than being baffled by Kesselring’s annoying conceit – two matronly middle-aged sisters , Abby and Martha (well played by Yvonne Robertson and Harriet Whitmyer, respectively) bent on homicide – the director underscores the staged craziness by intermittently employing the sound of a cuckoo clock to suggest the benign insanity of the contrived circumstances as an explanation of the sisters’ murderous tendencies.

The players work to make this cuckoo comedy function, and despite the script’s logical barriers preventing us in the audience from willingly suspending our disbelief, we are charmed and amused by the performances of Alexander Ryhs as a delusional nephew of the murdering matrons who believes he’s Teddy Roosevelt; Bradley Roa ll as Teddy’s brother, Mortimer, a haughty theater critic; AllieRose Nava as Elaine, Mortimer’s put upon fiancé; David Edward Reyes as Teddy and Mortimer’s criminally wayward brother, Jonathan; and Danny Rangel adding a comically creepy edge to his portrayal of Jonathan’s plastic surgeon Dr. Einstein.

Additionally, colorful character acting by Scott Green and Aaron Warren as Officers Brophy and Klein is a production plus. As are the supporting efforts of Rick Werbin and David Hillinger, both doing double duty in two roles a piece, Werbin as Dr. Harper and Lieutenant Rooney and Hillinger as Gibbs and Witherspoon. But the scene stealing turn in this production is Desi Molinari as Officer O’Hara, a role that is meant for a man but is feminized and made entirely delightful by Molinari’s skills and charm.

“Arsenic and Old Lace” continues through Dec. 2. Evening performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. Matinees are Sundays at 2 p.m. The Playhouse is located at 5021 Anaheim St., Long Beach. For reservations, call (562) 494-1014. For online ticketing, visits lbplayhouse.org.

ben@beachcomber.news

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