Thursday, September 27, 2012
Theater review: Arsenic and Old Lace embodies a twisted family affair
Dinner with the folks wouldn't be complete without a couple of dead bodies.
GARLAND Arsenic and Old Lace is billed as a dark comedy, but the energy and lighthearted atmosphere created by the cast of Plaza Theatre Company’s production was anything but dark. The setting of the play is the Brewster family home where the two aunts of Mortimer Brewster, a local theater critic, live. Mortimer stumbles upon a dark family secret and the ensuing “madness” begins.
In Ben Phillips’ directorial debut, the play seemed to have been produced with the 1944 movie starring Cary Grant in mind. The characters, music, and pace of the show reflected the movie to near duplication. This worked at times, but at the same time created the feeling of being a little too contrived.
The set, designed by JaceSon P. Barrus, was detailed and period. The set included the entire theater, with a living area, dining room, window seat, stairs, and exits to the kitchen, front door, and basement, creating the illusion of a very large home. The props designed by Tammie Phillips complemented the set well. The combination of set and props created the desired effect of taking us back in time to an early 1940s home of the two spinster aunts of Mortimer Brewster.
Sound design by G. Aaron Siler was appropriate to the illusion of recreating the movie, including a soundtrack that provided sinister tones when necessary. Costume design by Kara Barnes was exceptionally good. Each character had period costumes which had a crisp look to them. One odd costume choice was when Elaine wore the same clothes for two days in a row. This would not be a likely situation in the 1940s, when women dressed up for evenings out and wore an entirely different sort of dress for daytime.
Before the play opened, the audience was warned, almost apologetically, that the first two acts would take about two hours and the third act, after intermission, would only be a half hour. During the first act, it seemed as though the cast was encouraged to deliver their lines as quickly as possible. As the play progressed, this problem lessened to an extent and the show was more enjoyable.
The standout performances of the evening were those of the two spinster aunts. JoAnn Gracey portrayed Abby Brewster with a sweet naiveté. Who wouldn’t want to give Aunt Abby a hug? Martha Brewster, played by Katy Wood, came across as a more sensible, but equally adorable, woman who could hold her own against any threat. Wood’s portrayal always came across as natural. Both actresses created characters that were easy to fall in love with, despite the situation they had created.
Also of note was the portrayal of Jonathan Brewster by Michael Rudd. Although his Boris Karloff voice and demeanor were sometimes distracting, his portrayal of the most sinister member of the Brewster clan was consistent, believable, and appropriately chilling.
Stephen Singleton made a valiant effort to simulate Grant’s performance of Mortimer Brewster. Occasionally his movements came off as affected, but Grant’s performance in the movie was very similar, so the performance was as expected. Some of the most comical moments of the evening were the result of interactions between Singleton and other cast members.
Michael Lain’s performance as Teddy Brewster, the brother who thought he was Teddy Roosevelt, was fun and convincing. Unfortunately, the script does not have Teddy on stage enough to thoroughly enjoy the nuances of this character.
Tyler Cox played the accomplice, Dr. Einstein, convincingly, although his German accent was absent through most, but not all, of the show. Still, his portrayal was entertaining and convincing. Had it not been for the references to his German accent in the script, the audience may not have realized it was missing.
Overall, the show was very entertaining and the audience was enthusiastic. It is sometimes difficult to pull off a dark comedy with situations such as this one – there are dead bodies, after all – but this production pulled it off and is worth the watch.
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