Arsenic and Old Lace is a throwback to a distinctly retro sensibility. It’s a classic comedy of manners, a dark farce laced with a morbid, chemical undercurrent. Screwball antics, sarcastic jabs and silly errors abound. The 1940s setting is a charming, quaint time capsule to a very different America. Thankfully, any ‘40s references are easy enough to decipher without a history degree. Slapstick, miscommunication and dead bodies are universal.
Certifiably not insane theater critic Mortimer Brewster (Bradley Roa II) stops by his spinster aunts’ humble Victorian home in the heart of 1940s Brooklyn. But this is not a normal family. His aunts Abby (Yvonne Robertson) and Martha (Harriet Whitmyer) moonlight as self-appointed euthanasia specialists, “helping” the lonely old men of Brooklyn to a better place with a tasty, toxic tincture.
Meanwhile, his brother Teddy Brewster (Alexander Rhys) is fully convinced that he is Teddy Roosevelt. His other brother, Jonathan Brewster, David Reyes) is a murdering, scarred psychopath evading the police. The alcoholic, German Dr. Einstein (Danny Rangel) is Jonathan’s reluctant sidekick and highly unskilled, personal plastic surgeon. How is Mortimer going to make this right– and convince his new fiancée, Elaine (AllieRose Nava), that he’s not insane too?
The cast is having a ball, and the goofy atmosphere is infectious. Mortimer (Roa II) stands out as the only sane person in the room. And watching the aunts detail their homicidal tendencies and strange funerary rites is hilarious. Dr. Einstein is the classic hapless sidekick and hits his deadpans and breathes his sighs with spot-on exasperation. Just about every character gets their chance to shine.
The play takes delight in mocking its own zany hijinks– particularly the pretension of theater critics like Mortimer. Arsenic’s writer, Joseph Kesselring, isn’t too fond of judgmental theater critics. It’s a clever move, since it almost inoculates the show against a theater critic’s analysis (much like this one). But the production pokes just as much fun at poor writing and indulgent writers through wannabe playwright and incompetent cop Officer O’Hara (Desi Molinari). To anyone who has reluctantly slogged through someone’s terrible first draft, there’s a scene tailor-made for you.
This general self-aware streak buoys the show’s more outlandish plot maneuvering and permits the show to avoid feeling too dated. You do get two or three errant lines about the “Chinaman” and “Indian” that, while not outright prejudiced, do signal the show’s 1939 timestamp. The play’s generous spirit and innocence keep the lines feeling merely outdated and not offensive, but it is worth observing.
The plotting is ridiculous by design, but the dialogue itself is unhurried. It’s refreshing to see comedy at a slower pace with a certain wry detachment, rather than the usual contemporary irony stuffed within irony. Of course, we live in a great era for (televised) comedy, but don’t count out the charms of an older guard. Arsenic and Old Lace is as fun a romp as ever. Just don’t drink the elderberry wine.
Arsenic and Old Lace continues at the Long Beach Playhouse, 5021 Anaheim St., through Dec. 2, with shows every Friday and Saturday at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $24 for adults and $18 for students and seniors. For reservations and information, call (562) 494-1014 or visit lbplayhouse.org.