Review: When ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ is a potent mix

 Mary Martello (left), Jane Ridley and Damon Bonetti in Walnut Street Theatre's production of

Mary Martello (left), Jane Ridley and Damon Bonetti in Walnut Street Theatre's production of "Arsenic and Old Lace." (Photo courtesy of J. Urdaneta Photography)

If the Walnut Street Theatre, which is 205 years old, doesn’t know how to gently roast an old chestnut to bring out its taste, then who does? Really, when any old chestnut you can think of was newly formed, the Walnut was already venerable itself.

 

For me, the theater’s classic old chestnut is “Arsenic and Old Lace,” the 1941 comedy about the Brewster sisters, two good-natured and amoral biddies who empathize so much with the old and lonely men they meet, they give the fellows some rest by poisoning them, and then holding funerals in the basement of their Brooklyn home, where the bodies are buried.

Director Frank Capra turned Joseph Kesselring’s play into a popular movie, which made the play even more attractive as regional theater developed in the ’70s, when I first encountered it. By the early ’80s, you could call “Arsenic and Old Lace” a cliché – compared to the contemporary New York comedies of Neil Simon, which made audiences laugh and feel sophisticated, “Arsenic” made them laugh and feel like their grandmas.

Until I saw its slick and energized opening-night performance on Wednesday at the Walnut – which I admit, I went to with a sense of resignation — I had given up on “Arsenic and Old Lace.” But oh, what a difference a production can make.

The final straw (I thought) had been the “Arsenic” I saw at the vaunted Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis three seasons back – a creaky affair in which the play’s many oddball characters seemed eaten by their own tarnish. The play wasn’t just old, it was rotting. I felt like a vulture just watching it.

What I saw in Charles Abbott’s production at the Walnut made me understand the joy audiences must have felt on Broadway in the ’40s, where the comedy lasted for nearly 1,500 performances. Even then, “Arsenic and Old Lace” was supposed to hearken back to old times, a feel transmitted by its two elderly-sister main characters and the grand but outdated design of their home – beautifully rendered at the Walnut by Robert Klingelhoeffer.

At the Walnut, these old times are a cause for big smiles because living in them for two hours reconnects us to an innocently funny theater we rarely get in these edgier, more frenetic and nastier days, when dark wit is likely a partner with cold reason. They don’t write ’em like this anymore. And we could make a case that they shouldn’t.

But before we do, consider the elasticity of even a drying rubber band in the hands of a director who understands storytelling: Not a minute seems to go by in the Walnut’s production without some sort of stage business that enhances the script. Someone falls on the floor in complaint. People stop moving across the stage to make a point. Actors deliver eloquent silent asides with their eyes. I can see why the sort of comedy “Arsenic’s” script offers might be called thin by today’s standards, but you can’t call the Walnut’s production anything less than full-blown.

Mary Martello and Jane Ridley are responsible for much of the bright coloring – as the two sisters with a toxic concoction of elderberry wine, they are by turns daft and down-to-earth in their rationales. (Plus, Martello and Ridley are instantly charming in the roles.) Damon Bonetti, who has developed into a super-smart actor on many stages here over the years, is a hoot as the ladies’ nephew who catches them in their mercy-killer project; he partners comic timing with fluid body language, to maximum effect.

One of the big plusses for the rest of the cast is the way that Abbott’s direction sets them free to act every bit the heavily drawn characters they are. They turn the pat quality of their characters to advantage – after all, “Arsenic” is a play that rejoices in its stereotypes: the exceptionally nasty villain (Dan Olmstead), the cuckoo brother (Ben Dibble), the super-adorable fiancée (Jennie Eisenhower), the mad German doctor (Laurent Giroux), the Irish officers (Fran Prisco and John-Charles Kelly), their naïve rookie (John Jarboe), their no-nonsense lieutenant (Paul L. Nolan) and of course, a couple of lonely old men ripe for offing (Peter Schmitz).

They get to wear Colleen Grady’s spot-on ’40s costumes, and also to wear the sort of stupefied and stylized expressions that don’t much work these days in modern comedies. Which goes to show that not all museum-pieces need to be displayed in an air-tight, climate controlled case. Some just need a careful, loving dusting.

_“Arsenic and Old Lace” runs through April 27 on the main stage of the Walnut Street Theatre, on Walnut Street between Eighth and Ninth Streets. 215-574-3550 or www.walnutstreettheatre.org.

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