Maim Your Poison

I stopped attending certain of our "little" theaters some years back. After seeing my share of creaky standards wrecked by bad acting and inept direction, I figured I'd done my duty and deserved a reprieve. But Phoenix Theatre has ended my respite with its current production of Arsenic and Old Lace, a well-worn classic that's been a staple of junior college and high school theaters for decades. Perhaps in acknowledgment of its own "little theater" days, the 80-year-old company has mounted an unattractive, underacted knockoff of this big-time perennial.

As any fourth-grader can tell you, Joseph Kesselring's comedy concerns two little old ladies whose hobby is poisoning lonely old men. They live with their three nephews: a friendly fruitcake who thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt, a psychotic murderer on the lam, and (gasp!) a theater critic. The critic and his fiancée are dogged by an alcoholic plastic surgeon, a bumbling Brooklyn police force, and a never-ending parade of situations and sight gags that were once considered enormously funny.

I got a laugh out of the set, anyway. The vast, flimsy Brewster parlor has all the warmth of a pile of fusty stage flats. The hastily assembled scenery features plastic ferns and rickety door frames that threaten to crumple with every entrance. I held out hope that one of the wobbly walls would come crashing down -- anything to liven up this sleepy fiasco -- but Richard Farlow's set remained standing.

The players did, too, unfortunately. As a showcase for mush-mouthed line readings, missed cues and overacting, Arsenic and Old Lace is a triumph. Jaime Dempsey is especially dreadful as Elaine, Mortimer's fiancée. She strikes a pretty pose, but her performance is hindered by her attempts to move and speak. Scott Harris' impersonation of comic-book hero Archie Andrews is as lifelike as a two-color line drawing. And Ken Matthews' portrayal of supposedly spooky Dr. Einstein is crippled by failed affectations (a hunched back and an embarrassingly bad German accent, meant to recall a B-movie mad scientist) that leave no room for acting.

It's nearly an hour before the show's single worthwhile performance turns up. As the evil nephew, Greg London is a revelation -- a great, swaggering Brooklyn gorilla who swipes every scene with his menacing scowl and creepy delivery. In one scene, London reveals his contempt for his brother by yanking the man's photograph from a picture frame and eating it -- a remarkable moment greeted by absolute silence from the audience, who'd probably long since fallen asleep.

No one else does anything to hold our attention, thanks in part to Victoria Holloway's flabby direction. Holloway has attempted to make Arsenic and Old Lace into a comic thriller by adding spooky lighting tricks and creepy incidental music. The only scary moments here involve several lamps that turn on by themselves, thanks to badly timed lighting cues. And I admit I was pretty frightened to discover that there are enough untalented performers in our town to fill such a large stage.

In celebration of its 80th birthday, the former Phoenix Little Theatre has scheduled a season chock-full of tried-and-true fare usually relegated to tiny community theaters and high school cafetoriums. (The company opened its season with Man of La Mancha; Steel Magnolias is yet to come.) Theater fans who relish replays should telephone PT's box office at once; everyone else can stay home and catch up on their reading. And no one from either camp should bother to attend the company's poisonous production of Arsenic and Old Lace.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela