|Cameron Manning, Rosemary Dann and Skye Ayers|
To give you an idea as to how popular the classic black comedy Arsenic and Old Lace is, this past weekend you could have seen three different productions of the play in the Phoenix metropolitan area. Joseph Kesselring's 1941 comedy features plenty of eccentric characters, an abundance of charm, and numerous humorous moments, so it's understandable why it's produced so often. While two of the productions are still playing, the Paradise Valley Community College production, which had a capable cast, a beautiful set design and solid direction, just ended its run.
Set in 1941 Brooklyn in the home of sisters Abby and Martha Brewster who have taken it upon themselves to help out their lonely, old gentlemen boarders by murdering them with a lethal concoction of elderberry wine laced with arsenic, strychnine, and "just a pinch" of cyanide. Their gentle but crazy nephew Teddy, who believes he is President Roosevelt, lives with them. Their other nephew Mortimer, who is a drama critic, has just asked his girlfriend Elaine to marry him when he discovers his aunts' latest victim stuffed in the window box. Mortimer's discovery sets the plot in motion as he attempts to figure a way out of his predicament. But it only gets worse. First, Mortimer finds out his aunts have killed other boarders and then his other brother, the not so sweet, homicidal killer Jonathan, shows up at the house with his accomplice Dr. Einstein with a dead body of their own to hide.
While Kesselring's play is a delightful period piece, there are silly situations, several simple and daft characters and things start to get a bit tired in the second act. The fun plot does have several twists and turns and an ending befitting of the eccentric characters.
Director Andrea Robertson assembled a capable cast comprised almost entirely of MCC students, with nearly all managing to portray these broad, peculiar characters with ease. Rosemary Dann and Skye Ayers made Abby and Martha loveable and sweet, just the type of aunts anyone couldn't help but love. While they were both effective, especially in the natural way they presented their activity of killing the older men in a perfect "matter of fact" way, Dann was exceptional, with her realistic line delivery and the abundance of charm she brought to the part. As Mortimer and Elaine, Cameron Manning and Rebekah Corbin made a fetching and genuine couple. Manning's shocked facial expressions when his aunts tell him about their mercy killings was perfectly comical as was his agility in raising one eyebrow in several key scenes for humorous effect. Corbin brought a nice sense of feistiness to her role and it was clearly believable that she and Manning were an item.
As Jonathon, Matthew Pulido used an appropriate deep booming voice and a maniacal, menacing laugh that always implied a sense of danger underneath. While Nathaniel Lutz was just about perfect as the confused Teddy, his lines were sometimes lost due to the many times he was upstage, a somewhat rushed delivery, and the unfortunate fact that none of the actors were mic'd. While the PVCC Theatre isn't that large, the use of microphones would have been appreciated as, while I was sitting fairly close to the stage, there were numerous lines I missed. With a thick German accent, comic mannerisms and an agile use of his body, AJ Farrimond was perfect as Dr. Einstein. Though I never really felt that he was truly evil, due to his sweet disposition, it was still a very effective portrayal. Also, Ric Alpers was a complete natural as the Police Lieutenant who shows up toward the end of the second act.
Robertson's direction was solid, allowing a nice balance between the funny and serious moments with neither getting completely out of hand, something that can be an issue with a black comedy. She also successfully staged the action across the expansive set, including an effective use of the staircase and landing at the back of the stage for Teddy's numerous exits and entrances. Robertson also changed the genders for a couple of characters, presumably in order for more female students to be featured in the show, and it worked seamlessly.
Creative elements were period perfect, including a spacious, realistic set design from Erik H. Reid that featured wood paneled walls, a large bay window and window seat, and the aforementioned staircase. Reid also supplied the lighting design, with vibrant elements in the nighttime scenes to portray the lights outside the house as well as those coming up from the basement when the basement door was opened. With the addition of 1940s furniture and accessories and Jessica Florez's character appropriate costumes, which included beautiful lace lined funeral clothes for the aunts, it was an inspired design combination.
With an adept cast, successful direction, and very good creative elements, Paradise Valley Community College's production of Arsenic and Old Lace did justice to this perennial chestnut. Sure, it's a silly show filled with funny characters and almost implausible situations, but when done right it instills the laughs with charm and warmth, which is just what the PVCC production achieved.
The Paradise Valley Community College production of Arsenic and Old Lace ran October 10th to the 19th, 2014 at the PVCC Center for the Performing Arts, 18401 North 32nd Street in Phoenix. Tickets and information for their upcoming productions can be found at paradisevalley.edu/cpa or by calling (602) 787-7738
Photo: Tiffany Bolock