After more than 60 years, Joseph Kesselring’s highly amusing masterpiece Arsenic and Old Lace is still an incredibly funny show. This past weekend, the current Queens Shakespeare, Inc. presentation of this brilliant black comedy did have a few bumps (specifically, some not-so-solid lead performances), but Lawrence Lesher's direction was crisp and there were a number of high-spirited performances from an impressive supporting cast.
Kesselring's wicked tale tells the story of two presumably sweet old ladies, both considered pillars of Brooklyn for their charitable works and generosity to their neighbors. But even they, as it is said in the show, have their peculiarities. The peculiarity here is that they turn out to be serial killers.
Deciding that it would be a pity to let vacant rooms remain empty in their old house, the Brewster sisters, Abby and Martha (Nanette Asher and Pauline Walsh), occasionally take in boarders. They cannot help but notice the loneliness of the older, unattached men whom fate or chance bring to their door. When these prospective tenants of modest means tell the sisters that they are alone in the world, without family, friends, or hope, the well-meaning sisters literally kill them with kindness by serving them a glass of their homespun elderberry wine, laced with arsenic, plus a dash of strychnine and just a pinch of cyanide.
When their innocent nephew Mortimer (Greg Mocker) accidentally finds out about his aunties’ unusual “hobby,” he plans to shift the blame for the killings onto his brother Teddy (Sean MacBride Murray), who thinks he is President Theodore Roosevelt and dresses and acts accordingly. Adding to the mix is Mortimer's insane brother Jonathan (Danny Mittermeyer), on the lam from the law, wearing a new face (vaguely reminiscent of horror film legend Boris Karloff) compliments of his whiskey-drinking plastic surgeon companion Dr. Einstein (Timothy J. Cox). The pair arrives in Brooklyn dragging along a corpse of their own.
What follows is a potent mixture of madcap comedy and smoldering menace, and director Lawrence Lesher deserves high praise for striking all the right notes, with most scenes popping with great energy and enthusiasm. His production, however, while good (even quite wonderful) in many spots, falls short of being an overall great one because of two lackluster lead performances, from Nanette Asher as Abby Brewster and Greg Mocker as Mortimer. Both actors throughout seemed terribly lost, never settling into their roles or finding a rhythm, especially Mocker, whose line readings were unusual in some spots and downright bizarre in others.
A big part of my criticism of their performances, mostly Asher's, has to do with the simple fact that I couldn't make out a large percentage of what they were saying. Admittedly, the acoustics at the Bowne Street Community Church auditorium, where the play was performed, was not an ideal space for this zany show, but that didn't deter the strong supporting cast, who managed to rise above the spatial limitations and deliver great performances. Pauline Walsh, who was drop-dead hysterical as Martha Brewster, injected much-needed life into all her scenes; roly-poly Sean MacBride Murray was a pistol from the opening curtain as a delightful Teddy. The lovely Meg Mark, who reminded me of a young Meg Ryan, was great as Mortimer’s not-so-dumb, undersexed girlfriend Elaine Harper, a minister’s daughter who throws herself at Mortimer and becomes more and more confounded by his strange unwillingness to respond to her romantic overtures.
Jonathan Emerson, Thom Brown III, Matthew Harris, and Brendon Hunt all contributed nice cameos (and ridiculous Irish accents) as a bunch of not very observant police officers. Hands down, though, the scene-stealers were Danny Mittermeyer, superb as the murderous and sadistic Jonathan Brewster, and the always top-notch Timothy J. Cox, magnificent as Dr. Einstein. Both actors exploded on to the stage at end of Act I and set the tone and pace for the remainder of the show, playing off each other like a seasoned acting duo.
Aside from his duties on stage, Jonathan Emerson also acted as scenic and lighting designer for the production, and given the space he had to work with, he managed to create a workable space for the actors and subtly light the proceedings.