2017-04-21 / On The Town

You’ll die laughing at classic black comedy

PLAY REVIEW /// ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’
By Cary Ginell

NAUGHTY AUNTS—Abby (Helene Cohen) and Martha (Jeanie Jones-Johnson) plan who gets the next dose of elderberry wine in the High Street Art’s Center production of “Arsenic and Old Lace.” 
Courtesy of Barbara Mazeika NAUGHTY AUNTS—Abby (Helene Cohen) and Martha (Jeanie Jones-Johnson) plan who gets the next dose of elderberry wine in the High Street Art’s Center production of “Arsenic and Old Lace.” Courtesy of Barbara Mazeika At a key point in Joseph Kesselring’s “Arsenic and Old Lace,” confused lover Elaine Harper tells her exasperated beau Mortimer Brewster, “If you think you’re going to get out of this by pretending you’re insane, you’re crazy!”

That’s the kind of humor that prevails in the still potent 1939 black comedy, which made its debut at the High Street Arts Center in Moorpark last weekend.

High Street’s cast features many faces familiar to Ventura County audiences, all of whom are experienced character actors. One can only wonder how director William Carmichael, himself skilled at juicy roles like those in “Arsenic,” managed to stay behind the scenes.

Most people know the play from the highly popular 1944 motion picture starring Cary Grant, who played dyspeptic theater critic Mortimer Brewster.

In the story, Mortimer is thunderstruck to discover that Abby and Martha, his two lovable, elderly aunts, have been successively killing single male residents of their boarding house by offering them homemade elderberry wine spiked with “arsenic, strychnine and just a touch of cyanide” and then burying the bodies in their cellar.

Once the plot is laid out, we find that the entire Brewster family is a bowl full of mixed nuts. Teddy Brewster fancies himself Theodore Roosevelt and spends much of the play charging upstairs (to what he believes is San Juan Hill) or descending to the cellar (the locks of the Panama Canal), where he believes he is burying yellow-fever victims.

Then there’s the murderous Jonathan, who bears a striking resemblance to actor Boris Karloff. Karloff himself played the role in the original stage play and received huge laughs when he explained that he killed a man “because he said I looked like Boris Karloff!”

Arryck Adams is ideally suited to play Mortimer, not just for his ability to act panic-stricken, but also because of his innate talent for physical comedy, a by-product of his dancing and choreographing background. Adams also nails every one of Cary Grant’s immortal lines, such as “Insanity runs in my family. It actually gallops.”

The actresses who play the eccentric sisters are essential to the insanity, and Helene Cohen (as Abby) and Jeanie Jones- Johnson (as Martha) play their roles brilliantly.

To be effective, the sisters have to appear to be anything but sinister and have no inkling that they are committing cold-blooded murder. (They understate their deeds as “bad habits.”)

Dale Alpert is able to slip into any character effortlessly, as if he’s been doing it all his life. Alpert is a joy as Teddy, the only really harmless member of the Brewster family. Teddy’s delusion is nonthreatening, and his family has learned to live with it, although Mortimer is determined to have him committed to the Happy Dale Sanatorium. Scott Armstrong’s excellent set design allows Alpert to execute his “charges” up “San Juan Hill” on a straight-tracked staircase.

Ray Mastrovito turns in an uproarious performance as Jonathan’s confederate, the alcoholic plastic surgeon, Dr. Herman Einstein, complete with a mad scientist German accent. Samantha Winters is a delight as Elaine Harper, while Keith Moreton, glowering and bellowing, is superb as the menacing Jonathan.

The clueless policemen who can’t see past their nightsticks include John Eslick, Andy Brasted, Scott Puckett and Alex Greene.

On opening night, the cast was nonplussed by various uncooperative props, including a curtain rod that refused to stay mounted on the wall. But these inevitable, live theater mishaps only make you admire the skills of this exemplary cast that much more.

“Arsenic and Old Lace” plays through May 7 at the High Street Arts Center. Visit www.highstreetartscenter.com or call (805) 529-8700 to make reservations.

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