For some people, Arsenic and Old Lace is a beloved old film comedy starring Cary Grant. A whole bunch of other people were either in it in high school or had to go see a friend or relative in it in high school, and I mean for decades now. (Not unlike You Can't Take It With You -- for whatever reason, characters who are crazy as bedbugs are more palatable to parents and school boards than a lot of other potentially controversial content. Plus, each play has a single set! Woo-hoo!)
So the bar is set pretty low, as far as I'm concerned -- if a production of Arsenic that stars grownups has actors who are playing roughly the appropriate ages, who get the jokes, and who demonstrate crisp timing, that's the best Arsenic ever. Nevertheless, Desert Stages Theatre has exceeded my modest hopes with its current production, which is well-cast, tastefully designed, and delivers plenty of laughs.
Director Terry Helland's shabby-genteel set, the front parlor of the Brewster family's historic Brooklyn home, somehow squeezes the impression of both an upstairs and a cellar into the petite Actor's Café space along with two functioning exits to the "outdoors", and the deep green and gold color scheme with just the right amount and character of knickknack dressing is better than you'll see on a lot of larger, costlier community theater box sets.
The cheery old Brewster sisters, Martha and Abby (Alice Bjorklund and Shirley Windhorst, at the performance I saw, who share the roles with another pair of Valley stage veterans, Barbara McBain and KatiBelle Collins), have three adult nephews. One of them, the morally suspect and long-missing Jonathan Brewster (Jeff Carpenter), presents one of the main challenges about Arsenic : He's undergone yet another identity-concealing plastic surgery at the hands of shady, drunken Dr. "not that one, the other one" Einstein (Ryan Toro), and because Einstein had recently seen a film featuring Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's monster, that's sort of what Jonathan came out looking like, and the other characters mention the resemblance relentlessly. Which was very cute, I'm sure, when Karloff played the role in the original Broadway production, but has been a directorial nightmare ever since.
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Helland and his crack team solved part of the problem in a brilliant fashion: Jonathan's face is still adorned with healing incisions from the surgery -- instant monster! But, unfortunately, Toro's rapid-fire, slightly amorphous German dialect imparts the crucial exposition so soon after his first entrance that his mouth and the audience's ears aren't quite warmed up yet, and if you don't already know what all that's about you'll probably never figure it out. Toro is a fine physical actor, though, and a good match for his castmates.
Mortimer Brewster (Cullen Moll), who serves as the closest thing to a hero in this deliciously wacky ensemble, is a newspaper theater critic (a detail I'd forgotten), and although the playwright takes plenty of shots -- funny ones -- at the profession, he did do us the favor of presenting Mortimer as the least insane, if not the most harmless, of the Brewster brothers.
For devotees of nostalgia, mildly suspenseful twists, and slightly dark comedy, snapping up a couple of the remaining tickets for this mystery-turned-farce sounds like a fine alternative to a houseful of sports fans and smelly chicken wings this weekend. The popular show was extended past its original closing date, so good seats are still available.
Arsenic and Old Lace continues through Sunday, January 24, at Scottsdale Desert Stages Actor's Café, 4720 North Scottsdale Road in Scottsdale. Call 480-483-1664 for tickets, $20 to $25, or purchase them here.