Ah, the holidays in the theater – music, beautiful and sparkly costumes, dancing, Christmas trees, cute kids warm-hearted adults – it’s a winter wonderland of warmth and decking the halls.
And then there is Dale Gutzman and his ever-dangerous Off the Wall Theatre.
The holiday offering this season (since the immensely talented Gutzman didn’t bother or couldn’t bring himself, to create another topical Holiday Punch series of humorous skits) is “Arsenic and Old Lace,” the classic that debuted on Broadway over 75 years ago.
Loving adults? Cute children? Sparkles, bangles and beads? Christmas Trees and ice skates?
As Donnie Brasco said…”Fuggitabout!”
Instead we get a panoply of characters who might lead you to believe that Joseph Kesselring was in the middle of an LSD (or whatever the equivalent was in the 1930’s) when he made these people up.
Let’s start with Abby Brewster (Marilyn White) and Martha Brewster (Michelle Waide), a pair of sisters who preside over the family manse. Living with the two is nephew Teddy (Lawrence J. Lukasavage) who is so convinced he is Teddy Roosevelt that every time he climbs the stairs he sounds the “charge” because he thinks it’s San Juan Hill.
We add to this mix the people who arrive at various times, including: Mortimer (Mark Neufang), Teddy’s brother who is a drama critic and in love with Elaine Harper (Brittany Meister) the daughter of the pastor (Paul Pfannenstiel) who lives next door.
We also have two cops (Jeremy C. Welter and Mark Ninneman), Mr. Gibbs (Welter with wig) a man looking for a room, Officer O’Hara (Welter with an Irish accent and another wig) and Mr. Witherspoon (Welter with yet another wig and a prissy accent). We also see a dead body (Barbara Weber).
And lest we forget along comes Jonathan (Gutzman), who is the brother of Teddy and Mortimer and Dr. Einstein (Robert Zimmerman), who is Jonathan’s partner in petty crime, including some murders.
The Christmas miracle here is that you really don’t need a program to tell the players. They are clearly drawn and clearly acted.
The Brewster sisters, devout Catholics (I think) are committed to relieving the suffering of lonely men who cross their path. They relieve the suffering by having them drink a glass of Elderberry wine that’s mixed with “arsenic, strychnine and just a pinch of cyanide.”
The men are initially kept in a window box and then are buried in the basement where Teddy believes the graves he digs are part of the Panama Canal he is constructing.
Mortimer, who has just proposed to Elaine, accidentally discovers the latest body in the window seat and we are off and running in a madcap romp through a classic farce without all the doors even though there are a couple of them.
This play has had lengthy runs in New York and London and has been performed countless times by other companies and was made into a movie starring Cary Grant. It has stood the test of time with good reason.
It is an intricate plot with twists and turns and surprises around every corner.
It’s also an example of the kind of performance Mr. Gutzman, who directed, can draw out of a cast with diverse levels of talent and experience.
Ms. White and Ms. Wade are veterans and it shows. Both actors are full of talent and create carbon copies of elderly Elderberry dispensers. They have perfect comedic timing and understand what’s supposed to be funny and what’s not. The skill comes in playing funny characters dead straight and both of them deliver heroically.
Mr. Ninneman is a panicked delight as the confused and confusing Mortimer. He slides through his characters as both an honest young man and as an outraged and frightened nephew.
And then there is Mr. Gutzman, who understands both the big and the little of great comedy.
As an example, see him and his hat. I will try to do justice to this brief, but hilarious routine.
When Jonathan arrives he is wearing a black bolero hat.
First he tosses it to the arm of the couch, but misses. A short time later, he tries again and misses again.
Then several minutes later he prepares to toss it again, pauses, shakes his head, and walks over the couch to put the hat down.
I realize it loses something in the translation from stage to page, but put your faith in the description.
There also needs to be special mention for Mr. Weller, an actor with the ability to play a wide variety of characters. He is a talent that is not to be denied and his four-character turn here is worth the price of admission all by itself.
“Arsenic and Old Lace” runs through New Year’s Eve.
Production credits: Director, Dale Gutzman; Technical Direction & Scenic Design, David Roper; Assistant to the Director, Sandy Lewis.