Serial killing would seem to be rather ghoulish subject matter for a comedic play, yet Arsenic and Old Lace has been a reliable audience-pleaser for over seventy-five years. Sonoma Arts Live has a production running through February 10.
Joseph Kesselring’s tale of the Brewster sisters and their pension for helping lonely old men meet their maker via a glass of elderberry wine debuted on Broadway in 1941 and ran for 1,444 performances. It starred Jean Adair, Josephine Hull, and Boris Karloff as black sheep Jonathan Brewster. A film adaptation by Frank Capra followed in 1944 starring Cary Grant as Jonathan Brewster. Though the play has since become a staple of the American theater, like an old haunted house it’s starting to creak.
Mortimer Brewster (Michael Coury Murdock) returns to his childhood home and his Aunts Abby & Martha (Karen Brocker & Karen Pinomaki). After getting engaged to the next-door preacher’s daughter Elaine (Julianne Bradbury), Mortimer is horrified to discover his aunts have taken on the most macabre hobby. They’re helping lonely old men find “peace” and disposing of the bodies in the basement. Luckily, Uncle “Teddy” (Tim Setzer) believes himself to be Teddy Roosevelt and is always willing to dig a new lock downstairs at the Panama Canal for the latest “yellow fever victim.”
Mortimer figures he can pin everything on the obviously insane Teddy, but things get complicated when brother Jonathan (Mike Schaeffer) shows up with a physician friend (Rose Roberts) and a body of their own.
Director Michael Ross has some good talent at work here. Mmes. Brocker and Pinomaki are delightfully dotty as the sisters, and Setzer invigorates the stage with his every appearance.
Michael Murdock, however, is too one-note as Mortimer, showing little range of emotion considering the insanity that’s going on around him. He rarely seems to be “in the moment”, often appearing to be casually awaiting his next line. Ms. Bradbury is far more animated as Elaine, making one wonder what she sees in Mortimer.
Schaeffer and Roberts are two very talented actors, but I’m not sure these were the right roles for them. I found Schaeffer’s menacing Jonathan undone by his distracting John O’Hurley-like voice (O’Hurley played J. Peterman on Seinfeld) and Roberts baby-faced Dr. Einstein too youthful to capture the character’s exhaustion and desperation.
Nice stagecraft compliments the performances. The black and white set (by Michael Walraven) and costumes (by Janice Snyder) evoke a classic cinema, period-film feel.
Arsenic and Old Lace is definitely a nostalgia piece, best enjoyed by those familiar with it.
Rating (out of 5): ★★★½
‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ runs through Feb. 10 at Andrews Hall, 276 E. Napa St., Sonoma. Thursday–Saturday, 7:30pm; Sunday, 2pm. $25–$40. 866.710.8942. sonomaartslive.org.
Photos by Miller Oberlin
This review originally appeared in an edited version in the North Bay Bohemian.