Dallas Theater Center has done the only reasonable thing it could to make that nuttiest of old chestnuts, Joseph Kesselring's 1941 comedy Arsenic and Old Lace, bearable. In the leads are two big Broadway stars, Tony winner (and Fort Worth native) Betty Buckley and four-time Tony nominee Tovah Feldshuh. That helps. And the young hired-in director, Scott Schwartz, came with Broadway credits (including Golda's Balcony starring Feldshuh) and an unfulfilled (till now) passion for wanting to put on a big-budget production of Arsenic in a way no one had before.
Schwartz can now cross Arsenic and Old Lace off his to-do list. This production is a pip.
Staged in DTC's old home theater, the Kalita Humphreys on Turtle Creek, the show opens with an explosion. A small replica of a tumbledown Victorian mansion, sitting downstage in front of scenic designer Anna Louizos' massive two-story revolving version of same, blows its roof off with a rumble and a puff of smoke. It's a visual metaphor for the explosively funny shenanigans to follow.
Every character comes attached to a short fuse in this dynamite take on one of theater's best-loved but most overdone plays. Minor characters are given majorly funny bits of extra business in this one, all timed to go off in the places where the script fritters. The main characters, Buckley and Feldshuh as the not quite geriatric Brewster sisters, are, however, allowed to run riot. Two great broads giving broad-as-hell performances—oh, yes, please, we'll have more of that. Playing under it all is a comically Gothic musical score composed by Michael Holland. The actors' moves are tightly choreographed to the beats of the music, from the flick of a light switch to the slam of a door. Farce needs precision like that.
With all the spiffy dancing around, including a funny tango with a cadaver, there's a strong whiff of The Addams Family in Schwartz's Arsenic. That creepy, kooky Brewster house looks like Gomez and Morticia's place in the Edward Gorey cartoons, complete with cemetery plots on the lawn, and there's an Addams-like nonchalance about the grisly goings on within. The chirpy, silver-haired maiden ladies, Aunt Abby (Feldshuh) and Aunt Martha (Buckley), are hobbyist vintners of a sort, brewing up elderberry wine and giving their hooch an extra kick guaranteed to make whoever drinks it kick off. They dose only the lonely souls who come to rent rooms. With 13 victims—each interred in the basement and given a proper religious send-off—the Brewster sisters are Brooklyn's busiest serial killers. If only they weren't so darling about it. They see their lethal cocktail parties as death with dignity. They dispatch their gents with honor and hymn singing. (Yes, Betty sings. What, you thought she wouldn't?)
Planting the corpses is brother Teddy (Dallas actor J. Brent Alford), who thinks he's President Theodore Roosevelt digging the Panama Canal. Charging up the staircase and blowing a bugle, Teddy lives happily in his delusion. When a nephew, Mortimer (DTC company member Lee Trull), pops by with commitment papers to send Teddy to a comfortable loony bin, things in-tizz-ify. Mortimer stumbles upon his aunts' latest victim in the window seat and learns the extent of the deadly wine tastings. His dilemma is deciding whether to alert the police or become an accomplice to his family's crimes. That his fiancée Elaine (DTC's Abbey Siegworth) is the preacher's virginal daughter who lives next door further complicates any idea of a cover-up.
What so often keeps Arsenic and Old Lace from reaching full laugh potential in lesser productions is the quaintness of its attitudes and the vintage references in its jokes. Besides the Teddy Roosevelt stuff, there are running gags about Boris Karloff, who starred in the original Broadway production as long-lost brother Jonathan Brewster, a gangster who's compared to Boris Karloff. (At DTC, Jonathan is played by Dallas theater newcomer Jason Douglas, who morphs nicely into Karloff's stiff-legged Frankenstein stance.) And the play takes many a swipe at what was happening on the Great White Way in the 1930s and '40s, with asides about Pirandello, Strindberg and the Marx Brothers. Kesselring gets decent mileage out of Mortimer's profession, too. The only sane member of the Brewster clan is a professional theater critic, which worries his aunts. Seeing so much theater, they observe, might lead him "to develop an interest in it." (And, if he's not careful, perhaps a noticeable twitch and a fat behind. Am I over-sharing?)
After the set-up, Arsenic and Old Lace gallops gaily along through mix-ups, body switches, comically sinister hostage takings and drop-ins by the neighborhood's clueless constabulary (James Crawford as a cop who's a bit too eager to talk out his idea for a play script with Mortimer; and SMU drama students Sean O'Connor and Chris McCreary as young flatfeet). How it all resolves happily for the deranged aunts, the deluded uncle and the criminal one, plus Mortimer and his leggy love object—well, does it really matter? All that matters, really, is that it's funny. And Schwartz and his cast of solid pros make it screamingly so.
Trull's the standout. Wearing a pair of Bogdanovich horn-rims that give him a bookishly handsome flair, Trull flings himself into the role of Mortimer. He's a fine physical comedian, taking the shortest route across the room by stepping up and over a chair, or wedging his thin frame in a doorframe, defying gravity with both feet off the floor.
Alford puts nice polish on Teddy, who too often is played as a lumpy lunatic. Nihal Joshi, Paul Taylor and Steve Powell light up satellite roles. Siegworth, the youngest member of DTC's resident acting company, is still honing her comedy rhythms, but she's coming along. Five-time Tony winning costumer William Ivey Long has created stunning stage wear in this show for all but Siegworth, whom he dresses in ill-fitting period suits that make her look like a dour secretary in an old William Wyler weepy.
As for the marquee stars, they meet all expectations—they're both on the cusp of being inducted into the "Broadway legends" club, after all—and they exceed some. Feldshuh is much twinklier as Aunt Abby than she comes across on those many episodes of Law & Order she's guest-starred in. Snapping her white dishrag at her co-stars in Arsenic, she's a wild-eyed little pixie. Every time she emerges from the kitchen in this play, she's nibbling something—a grape, a piece of cheese, part of the scenery. Delightful.
Buckley, with fewer lines and less physical business as Aunt Martha, looks appropriately dazed, as if her character is just a leetle bit tipsy from some of the poison-free elderberry vino. Wearing a gray wig styled in electric-socket frizz, Buckley maintains an expression that lets us know Aunt Martha's a tetch off plumb, but pleasantly so. And she generously tolerates Feldshuh's upstaging and out-mugging her for the better part of two and a half hours.
In a five-week run of this show, the prop master better see that none of those wine bottles gets spiked with anything that could put a quick end to that sort of behavior.