REVIEW: "Arsenic and Old Lace" — La Mirada Theatre & McCoy Rigby Entertainment
Updated: Jun 20
“Ye Gods! There’s Another One!”
The year is 1941. The location is a copious, two-story house next to a cemetery in Brooklyn. In this house full of antiques, ginger jars, velvet upholstery and vintage accents live two kind, but quirky old spinsters — Abby Brewster and her sister Martha, who pass their days devoting themselves to what they call “charitable works” in their neighborhood. But Martha and Abby have developed quite a very bad habit.
Deciding that it would be a waste to let vacant rooms remain empty in this rambling old house they inherited from their brother, the Victorian age sisters decide to take in boarders, but cannot help but notice the loneliness of the older, unattached men that fate brings to their door. So together they devise their own prescription for this sad condition.
That's when things get — well, lively. At least for their nephew Mortimer, who literally stumbles onto the results of his aunt's charitable efforts.
Speaking of Mortimer, those who haven't recently encountered the wickedly twisted screwball comedy, ''Arsenic and Old Lace,'' may be surprised to discover that its hero is a drama critic for a New York newspaper. Mortimer is the nephew of the murderous Brewster sisters, and he is, of course, the most likable character on stage.
In this highly anticipated revival at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts and McCoy Rigby Entertainment, the role is played by Jamison Jones, who, early in Act 1 can be heard muttering about the ''stinker'' he has to cover at the theatre that night. But Mortimer is such a nice guy that he's willing to revise his judgments after Elaine, his sweetheart (Rachel Seiferth), gives him a big kiss. Mortimer, smiling, says, ''I may give that play tonight a good notice.''
Joseph Kesselring created the first version of “Arsenic…,” which was extensively rewritten by its canny Broadway producers, the musical-comedy book-writers Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Opening one month after America entered the Second World War, it was a smash hit on both sides of the Atlantic, and it has gained the reputation of a black comedy avant la lettre. It is an example of the moribund genre, a sort of escapist comedy thriller fantasy.
But most of all, after almost 80 years, “Arsenic and Old Lace” is as revered today as when it first premiered on Broadway. Swift, dry, satirical and exciting, it had the opening-night audience roaring with laughter, and the actors got to romp around the impressively designed stage set with infectious glee.
The recipe ritual starts by serving elderberry wine (to one gallon of wine, add one tsp. arsenic, one-half tsp. strychnine, and just a pinch of cyanide) to each of their gentlemen, then conducting a full burial in the rites of his religion, complete with formal black attire deep in the numbles of their basement. "Murder? Certainly not! It's one of our charities." And, in their sweet way, they have a point.
An improbable plot you say? — possibly. But possible only because of the friendly insanity of the two heroines. It's not a question of finding a few bones in the cupboard…there’s a dozen bodies in the cellar. As their nephew Mortimer discovers, his sweet old aunts do not merely murder, they simply help lonely old men find peace. Apparently, that "poor fellow" Mortimer found in their sitting room suffered from yellow fever. "But there's a body in the window seat!" "Yes, dear, we know."
With a well-upholstered cast of barnstorming phenoms, the center-piece players are Carol Mansell (“Grease,” TV: “Grey’s Anatomy,” Film: “The Ultimate Playlist of Noise”) and Lynn Milgrim (Broadway: “Otherwise Engaged,” “Bedroom Farce,” Tour: “Brighton Beach Memoirs”) who absolutely “slay” as Abby and Martha Brewster, the two sweetest serial killers you could ever hope to meet. Their comedic timing is impeccable, bringing out all the jolly madness of their characters, talking of murder while gently clucking over their nephew’s marriage plans, and keeping the audience in stitches.
The merry mayhem includes Mortimer's bugle-blowing brother, Teddy (James Lancaster), an occupant in the house, who lives under the delusion that he is President Theodore Roosevelt and that the graves he’s been entrusted with digging down in Abby and Martha’s basement are actually locks for TR’s pet project, the Panama Canal. Mr. Lancaster steals almost every scene he is in, primarily due to Teddy’s utter obliviousness about the insane events occurring around him.
And adding to the mix is Mortimer's criminally insane brother Jonathan (Ty Mayberry), who next lands on their doorstep. On the lam from the law, wearing a new face (vaguely reminiscent of a young Billy Crudup here, but slowly turning into Boris Karloff from repeated surgeries) courtesy of his incompetent, whiskey-drinking plastic surgeon crony, Dr. Einstein (a character based on real-life gangland surgeon Joseph Moran), played by Ed F. Martin, the pair of them arrive in Brooklyn dragging along yet another dead body.
Supplement that with a few oblivious policemen, Officer Brophy (Michael Thomas-Visgar) and Officer Klein (Nick McKenna), as well as one interested in his own claim to fame, Officer O’Hara (Matthew Grondin), and Ms. Seiferth as Mortimer’s mystified fiancee Elaine, daughter of the Reverend Dr. Harper (Time Winters, who also doubles as sanatorium director Mr. Witherspoon), and the comic quotient rises considerably. Good Lieutenant Rooney and the unfortunate Mr. Gibbs is also portrayed by Mike Genovese.
As the daffy madness running in the Brewster blood becomes more evident, Mortimer despairs of his wedding plans to Elaine. Can he, in good conscience, doom this poor girl to life with a potential madman? Yet, in the great tradition of those screwball comedies, there are still more complications in store.
Populated with such delightfully bizarre characters, the play excels at undermining social graces with diabolical charm, sharp dialogue throughout and humor that remains fresh and undated. This gives it a perpetual evergreen quality, to be enjoyed by audiences of all kinds for years to come.
So let’s recap: We have corpses in the cellar, clueless cops, sweet old ladies, long lost brothers, crazy brothers, and an array of reverends, doctors and asylum bigwigs, among whom include plenty of serial killers on the scene. In that kind of commingle, "Arsenic and Old Lace" could only be a romcom a la Keystone Kops of major proportions, served with a large helping of ham and eggs and an ample sufficiency of uh-oh moments.
Yes, the narrative is a bit mad, and is far too intricately folded to describe. But Ms. Mansell and Ms. Milgrim are completely adorable as the "two helpless old women" whose homemade elderberry wine has quite a kick, and they both wear their old lace with style. As the final curtain falls, a potential tenant of the boarding house is raising his glass. "Elderberry wine! I thought I'd had my last glass." "No," replies Aunt Martha, "Here it is."
BT McNicholl, Producing Artistic Director of La Mirada Theatre explains, “Playwright Kesselring claimed that the inspiration for the play came from his own grandmother, a sweet little old lady who wouldn’t hurt a fly. He was amused at the idea of such a woman committing the most unlikely crime: murder. However, it’s quite possible he was mostly influenced by a well-publicized crime 20 years previous, when in the 1900’s, an Amy Archer-Gilligan ran the “Archer Home for the Elderly and Infirm,” a nursing home in Windsor, CT. Between 1907 and 1917 there were 60 deaths.
A sister of one of the deceased became suspicious, went to the D.A. and prompted an investigation, exhuming the bodies of five “residents,” including two of Amy’s late husbands. All had died of arsenic poisoning. Ultimately, Amy received a life sentence, and lived to 1962, well after the play and movie had been hits. There was some justice, at least, in the fact that she never received any royalites.”
So much for the nonfiction tale. But the fictional version has become a theatrical war horse. That play turned Mrs. Gilligan of Connecticut into the Brewster sisters of Brooklyn — which at the time featured Boris Karloff in his Broadway debut, playing a parody version of himself as Jonathan.
Directed by the steady hand of master craftsman Casey Stangl (2019 Director of the Year, StageScene LA), John Iacovelli is the Emmy Award-winning Scenic Designer (“Peter Pan”) featuring the set of an over-decorated house seemingly untouched since the 19th century; David Kay Mickelsen, with over 400 productions to his credit, is Costume Designer; Karyn D. Lawrence (“Radiance Lightworks”/”Universal Studios”) is Lighting Designer.
Ovation Nominee Josh Bessom (LA Theatre Works Nat’l Tour – “The Graduate,” “La Mirada Theatre Onstage Series”) is Sound Designer; Kevin Williams (“Lies Within VR Series,” “His Crimson Queen”) is Properties Designer; Katie McCoy (Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” Tour – “Jersey Boys”) is Wig/Hair/Makeup Designer; Julie Ann Renfro (Regional – “A Night with Janis Joplin, 2018 North American Tour,” “Invisible Tango”) is Production Stage Manager; Lisa Palmire is Assistant Stage Manager and Michael Polak is Fight Choreographer.
Producing quality productions since 1977, the Tony-nominated La Mirada Theatre has been hailed by the Los Angeles Times as “one of the best Broadway-style houses in Southern California. Celebrating its 25th Anniversary season at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, McCoy Rigby Entertainment is one of the world’s premier theatrical production companies, having produced over one hundred musicals, plays and concerts featuring some of the biggest stars in the industry today.
“Arsenic and Old Lace,” playing from January 24th through February 16th, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm & 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm. Ticket information is at https://lamiradatheatre.com/ You may also call the box office at (714) 994-6310 | (562) 944-9801; located at 14900 La Mirada Boulevard La Mirada, CA.
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credit: Jason Niedle