‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ opens on the mainstage

by Sarah McCarthy

“Arsenic and Old Lace” sounds as if it should be a drama. The play revolves around Mortimer Brewster (played by first-year Spencer Meeks), a drama critic who, in the span of a few hours, discovers that nothing about his family is remotely what he thought.

Brewster’s two aunts murder men with arsenic-laced wine, his younger brother is certain that he’s President Theodore Roosevelt, and his older brother Jonathan is an escaped homicidal convict who has yet to dispose of his most recent victim. But just as the play about a little girl and her imaginary friends was in no way a comedy, “Arsenic” is nothing but light and downright goofy all the way through.

First-year Lisa Mattson gives the play’s most outstanding performance as Abby Brewster, one of the two murdering aunts. Mattson’s performance is both funny and consistent—she never slips out of her slightly British sounding “old woman” voice or moves in anything less than a bouncing trot.

Evan Cartwright, as the lovably deranged brother who is certain that he’s Teddy Roosevelt, also gives an excellent performance and gives the stage some much-needed energy, as does Andrew Hill as Jonathan’s dopey sidekick, Dr. Einstein. Both Roman Goerss and Sam Horwith play the smaller parts of a play-writing policeman and a conservative and clueless minister equally well.

The play as a whole, however, first performed in 1941, is one very rooted in its time and never quite comes together in this production. Inconsistent, unidentifiable accents run rampant throughout, and its jokes often fall flat. It is, for example, full of references to the fact that actor Boris Karloff played Jonathan in the original production, and the self-referential jokes about how Jonathan’s plastic surgery made him have “a striking resemblance to Boris Karloff” would be quite amusing if Karloff had come to Harper Joy.

Quite frankly, though, most college students aren’t aware of the reference, and Riley Clubb, who plays Jonathan in this production, bears a striking resemblance to no one except for Riley Clubb, in spite of his garish dark make-up.

The play is, in total, not particularly considerate of its audience—from its immensely long length of nearly two hours forty minutes to the booming organ music that it plays all throughout its two intermissions, this is a Whitman play that isn’t interested in re-inventing the play for a new audience—it’s going to simply re-enact the traditional version.

It’s not quite consistently funny enough to ride on its laughs alone and thus falls into the unfortunate category of “cute” a little too frequently. The play, though, does have its moments, and, if anything, has given some talented first-years a chance to shine.


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