Monday, April 7, 2014

Arsenic and Old Lace: Farce Still Works

Jane Ridley, Laurent Giroux, Mary Martello and Dan Olmstead
Photo by 
J. Urdaneta Photography
Death isn't really funny, but when the good guys succeed and the bad ones get their just desserts, who minds a corpse or twelve in the basement, when we have so many worse skeletons in the closet.

Sometimes going to the theater can be just plain fun. That’s how I felt about the Walnut Street Theatre's production of Arsenic and Old Lace. A lot of familiar Philadelphia actors (Mary Martello and Jane Ridley as the Brewster sisters, Ben Dibble as Teddy Brewster, Damon Bonetti and Jennie Eisenhower as Mortimer Brewster and Elaine Harper, Peter Schmitz in two character roles)—I’ve only been here a little over a year and most were already familiar to me, along with a well-crafted script, resulted in a delightful farce—and I’m not one who uses adjectives like that lightly.

As the two elderly Brewster sisters, Martello and Ridley were alternately batty and serious, competent and absurd. In my quest to find satisfying roles for mature performers—more on that at another time—it’s nice to see that material does exist for them in which they are not distraught, alcoholic, or verging on dementia—although some may question the sanity of these two ladies, it’s more their thought processes that are in question, not their ability to think.

But of course, every play needs a young attractive hero, played here by Bonetti with the right amount of earnestness and naivety. But let’s face it, he had a hard act to live up to. Years of watching Arsenic and Old Lace on TV with Cary Grant in the lead role had set a certain standard. For those of you too young to remember, the film played regularly on TV for many years. For those of you who’ve never seen Cary Grant, check him out in some old movies (like Charade, The Philadelphia Story, To Catch a Thief, and . . . I could go on, but I won’t). He was a leading-man heartthrob who began his career as a stilt-walker, acrobat and juggler, so he was always willing to take on slapstick as well more dramatic parts. As I walked through the audience at intermission, I was surprised to see how many of the older generation were surprised to learn he had been Mortimer in the film.

One of the more interesting castings was Ben Dibble—last seen as King Henry V in Shakespeare’s Henry V at the Lantern Theater Company and Leo Frank in Parade at the Arden Theatre Company. Here he played Teddy, the older brother of questionable sanity, who believes himself to be Teddy Roosevelt. In the style of Grant, here’s a leading man not afraid to be a clown.

As for the story, two old ladies run a fake boarding house for older gentlemen whom they help on their way to the Panama Canal—obliging dug up by Teddy in the basement.

When long lost brother Jonathan (Dan Olmstead) shows up with a corpse of his own, and Mortimer discovers the family secret just as he is on the verge of proposing to his fiancé Elaine (Eisenhower), they must come up with a new plan to protect Teddy and keep them all out of jail which they do quite satisfactorily.

How often do we get to laugh out loud in the theater lately at something that isn’t mean or tinged with sarcasm? There’s something about the bedroom farce that works and keeps us engaged wondering whether characters and their secrets will be found out. One of the first shows I ever saw was the classic Where’s Charlie with Ray Bolger from which we were almost expelled because my little sister kept trying to tell the characters on stage exactly where Charlie was. I’ve had a fondness for farce ever since.  

This one in particular worked well. The cast was strong and generally consistent, minus a police officer here and there, and the pacing worked. The setting and costumes created a modern period piece, and the performance were strong.

I’ve come to appreciate performances at Walnut Street Theatre. Their revivals of classics with a local cast, their something for everyone choice of shows—always with a family friendly slant, their mix of musicals and dramas, along with a holiday show and children’s theater, plus smaller more experimental theater spaces upstairs provide a constant if not always consistent theater experience for the Philadelphia area.

Aresnic and Old Lace by Joseph Kesselring. Charles Abbott directed, through April 27 at Walnut St. Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA (215) 574-3550 or

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