|‘Arsenic & Old Lace’ provides non-stop laughter at Spreckels until September 2
The guy’s nutty as a Louisiana fruitcake. So is the loopy doctor who signs papers to get him committed to Happy Dell asylum. So are the older Brewster sisters, blissfully shrugging off in their goofy innocence the presence of a dozen bodies buried in their cellar.
You already know we’re talking about “Arsenic & Old Lace,” the farcical stage and movie hit now on stage in Spreckels Performing Arts Center until Sept. 2.
Most people remember the guy who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt, yelling “Charge!” as he climbs the stairs and blows a few off-key blasts on his trumpet. Or maybe down in the cellar digging the Panama Canal for “victims of yellow fever.” This is Nick Christenson, 350 pounds of orotund bluster. Founder of Narrow Way Stage Company, based in Cotati, he’s a scene-stealer every time he brings his belly to the top of the stairs.
This well-traveled farce goes back to Broadway in the 1940s, where it ran for seemingly years. It was turned into a hit movie with Cary Grant, Priscilla Lane, Peter Lorre and Raymond Massey in 1944.
Lorre played the nutty Dr. Einstein, spending a lot of his time toting suitcases up and down stairs and dispensing off-the-wall nostrums like a sideshow barker. The AMA probably had a warrant out for his arrest and divesture of his MD license.
Joseph Kesselring wrote the original play.
It’s one of those stage productions where practically every character is a scene-stealer. Top honors go to the two elderly sisters who run this madcap Brooklyn apartment. Lois Pearlman and Cat Bish, of Rohnert Park, are so blissfully innocent, even when dealing with local police. “Well,” says Bish, “The police wouldn’t dig up our cellar unless we gave them permission.” As Abby and Martha Brewster, they’re almost cuddly in their bizarre yet comfortable attitudes, even with the poison-laced elderberry wine they use to accumulate lonely old men. Cute little hobby, right?
“Teddy Roosevelt’s” loud intrusions serve as hilarious punctuation points. Viewers can’t wait for his pre-anticipated blasts to signal another scene shift. Even the two cops are adept scene-stealers. Can you imagine one of them reading a dumb play he wrote to a man bound and gagged to a chair? A real playwright’s nightmare.
Then there’s the son, Mortimer Brewster (the Cary Grant role in the movie) who’s in a continual fluster over who does and who doesn’t get the elderberry wine and thrashes his way across stage countless times to call the police (Did they have touch-tone phones in the 40s?), and check the existence, yes or no, about the corpse in the window seat. Freddie Lambert has this role, and his telephone-slamming technique must have awakened Alexander Graham Bell.
Thrust in the middle of this innocent bedlam is the ingénue, Alexis E. Long, who’s torn between marrying the always urgent and always shouting Mortimer or his quiet, suave and oily brother Jonathan. Police officers Nick McCook and Kyle Ryan are ideal as bewildered or serious cops assigned to a house of insane logic. Tom Lowrie and Al Christenson have multiple roles to fill in the cracks.
Tony Ginesi took care of set design, lighting and sound cores with professional aplomb. Stage manager Nora Summers borrowed Eddy Hansen’s two-level set to good advantage.
You can probably catch “Arsenic & Old Lace” on late night television shows. It’s worth it just to see old time screen veterans in action. The better option is at Spreckels, where the box office is open Tuesday through Saturday afternoons or one hour before curtain times. Call 588-3400 for details. It’s a winner for the intimate Condiotti Theater inside Spreckels.