Sally Wingert (Martha Brewster) and Kristine Nielsen (Abby Brewster) in the Guthrie Theater production of Arsenic and Old Lace
All photos by Michal Daniel
Arsenic and Old Lace, a farcical black comedy, runs through June 5 at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. According to these critics the show provides a belly full of laughs, but lacks any deeper drama. Think you might go? Check out these excerpts, or click on the links to read the full reviews.
From the first glimpse of the tastefully refined parlor where cultured eccentrics engage in witty banter, Arsenic and Old Lace seems to possess all the attendant visages of a drawing room comedy – with the notable distinction of a cellar crowded with shallow graves. Victims of two elderly sisters who approach murder as a kind of charitable enterprise, the accumulating corpses are just one example of the play’s waggishly skewed perversion of propriety. By equating social etiquette with mannerly homicides, the Guthrie Theater’s new production of Arsenic and Old Lace succeeds in transforming unabashedly morbid humor into crowd pleasing entertainment.
Now considered one of American theater’s defining dark comedies, playwright Joseph Kesselring had originally envisioned Arsenic and Old Lace as a grim crime drama until a friend astutely pointed out the ghastly humor to be derived from the story of Abby and Martha Brewster, spinster sisters whose unique definition of goodwill includes the poisoning of lonely old men…
Populated with such delightfully bizarre characters, Kesselring’s script excels at undermining social graces with diabolical charm. Occasionally the script’s carefully calibrated mechanics do show some wear, particularly in an exposition heavy first act that allows more chuckles than outright laughter, but director Joe Dowling confidently sustains the mood with a tongue-in-cheek sensibility perfectly suited to the irreverent material.
…Though Arsenic and Old Lace may falter by dramatic standards, the Guthrie’s emphasis on homicidal humor offers a farcical reminder that even murder can be a laughing matter.
Michael Booth (Officer Klein) and Bob Davis (Teddy Brewster) in the Guthrie Theater production of ARSENIC AND OLD LACE
When talking about Arsenic and Old Lace, co-star Sally Wingert notes that it’s a “handsome American play.” That’s an apt description of Joseph Kesselring’s 1941 macabre farce about murderous aunts, a Boris-Karloff look-alike madman, and a baker’s dozen of bodies in the cellar.
The show gets an appropriately handsome production at the Guthrie, led by Joe Dowling’s steady hand and featuring terrific turns from Wingert and Kristine Nielsen as Martha and Abby Brewster, a pair of spinster sisters who are always ready to offer a hand to charity–and to off lonely, older gentlemen. The two actors are a perfect double act, bringing out all the jolly madness of their characters, talking of murder while gently clucking over their nephew’s marriage plans.
The nephew, uneasy theater critic Mortimer, spends most of the play trying to unravel the mess caused by his relatives, including long-lost brother Jonathan, who looks like the Frankenstein’s monster actor. There’s also another brother who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt. He may be the sanest of them all. Jonas Goslow is probably too good looking to play a critic, but his rubbery face and expressions help to sell the increased chaos of the longest night of his life.
Kristine Nielsen (Abby Brewster), Tyson Forbes (Jonathan Brewster) and Sally Wingert (Martha Brewster) in the Guthrie Theater production of ARSENIC AND OLD LACE
Wingert and Nielsen have a supple chemistry, drawing from many influences to construct their farcical yet grounded roles. Both move with a lightness of feet that suggests oscillating characters from the Peking Opera, for example, part of a battery of expressive and funny physical attributes. And when these nice-seeming sisters are alarmed, they sound like creatures fluttering in a henhouse, quacking sotto voce.
Dowling tapped Tyson Forbes to play the sister’s bear-like prodigal nephew, Jonathan. He is also in the family business, though not nearly as jolly. Jonathan arrives home with an Igor-like plastic surgeon Dr. Einstein (Kris Nelson), who gives him new faces. Jonathan also has brought home a body.
The Guthrie cast does good work. They have expert comic timing, playing the script without too much scenery chewing and stage mugging. And the improbable jokes land, eliciting laughter and fun, even if you wish such good actors were doing their good work in something beside “Arsenic and Old Lace.”
Kristine Nielsen (Abby Brewster) in the Guthrie Theater production of ARSENIC AND OLD LACE
…Conducted lithely by Dowling, this talented cast knock out the laugh lines like they’re shooting ducks in a gallery–and give their characters such life that they get extra throwaway laughs from their gestures and expressions. There’s not a weak link, but particularly notable are the three leads and Kris L. Nelson, who plays the caricatured role of Dr. Einstein (no, not that Dr. Einstein, ba-domp-ching) to the hilt. The set by John Lee Beatty is static but attractive, elaborate, and functional–everything is, to quote Radiohead, in its right place.
This production is sure to please its intended audience, and will even wring a few chuckles from members of its unintended audience who find themselves corralled into attending. But don’t take my word for it. For this play about aunts, I brought no less an authority on the subject than my own aunt Betsy. What did she think? At intermission, she turned to me and said, “Those ladies are pretty epic.”
So, have you seen “Arsenic and Old Lace” at the Guthrie? If so, what did you think? Share your review in the comments section.