Review: ARSENIC AND OLD LACE at Court Theatre

Review: ARSENIC AND OLD LACE at Court Theatre

Joseph Kesselring’s 1941 play ARSENIC AND OLD LACE combines farce, explicitly dark comedy, and a little murder. Director Ron OJ Parson’s decision to envision the central Brewster family as a wealthy Black American family gives the play a modern twist. ARSENIC AND OLD LACE has historically been performed by mainly white actors—though there’s no reason in the text for this to be so. Seeing the mischievous and murderous sisters Abby and Martha Brewster played by TayLar and Celeste Williams adds to the power dynamic at play: Now it’s two elderly Black women who set on a mission to help elderly white men find peace—with help from some poisoned elderberry wine. 

The style and presentation of director Ron OJ Parson’s production are decidedly old-school, keeping to the play’s original era. John Culbert’s set presents a stately Brooklyn home with plenty of doors to open and close in a rush, cabinets to slam, and a critical window seat with storage below. Rachel Anne Healy’s costumes likewise are very much of the era. The charming presentation design nicely mirrors the dark farce. Abby and Martha may look like kind, helpful old ladies, but they’re hiding some dark secrets. 

The jokes and pacing in ARSENIC AND OLD LACE are classic farce. The cracks about Mortimer Brewster’s role as a theater critic were a particular hit for the audience on opening night at Court—and rightfully so, as a well-executed theater in-joke is always a treat. The first act of ARSENIC AND OLD LACE is relatively tight. While Parson tries to keep the play moving, the direction can’t totally compensate for the fact that the second act overstays its welcome. The script could reach its second act punchlines sooner. 

The ensemble clearly delights in the farce. TayLar and Williams have a delicious dynamic as Abby and Martha—the two are absolutely in cahoots and play off one another seamlessly. They also stick to the integrity of the characters and fully play the idea that Abby and Martha see themselves as performing charitable acts, rather than acts of murder. Playing the truth of this compromising moral belief is important to making the Brewster sisters as winsome as possible, and TayLar and Williams nail that. Allen D. Edge shows off his comedic chops as Teddy Brewster, who’s convinced that he’s actually President Teddy Roosevelt; this can be a tough part to play because it requires full buy-in from the actor, but Edge delivers on that. Eric Gerard is charming and utterly flabbergasted as Mortimer, though he sometimes plays the comedy too broad and makes it too evident that he’s in on the farce. Emma Jo Boyden provides a great counterpart for Gerard as his girlfriend Elaine Harper. She plays Harper as sufficiently wide-eyed and exasperated; Boyden clearly understands the assignment. Kudos must also be given to A.C. Smith as Mortimer’s older brother, the crooked Jonathan Brewster. Smith’s line deliveries are downright menacing, and he has precise timing (Rebecca A Scott Design’s makeup for the character are also extremely and necessarily creepy). Guy Van Swearingen, Thomas J. Cox, Norm Boucher, Matthew Lunt, and Allen Gilmore round out the cast as various characters that call upon the Brewster household as the play unfolds. 

Court Theatre’s production of ARSENIC AND OLD LACE is a straightforward presentation of the play, and it pays homage to classic farce. It’s not groundbreaking, but it will please those who love the genre or who are looking for some old-fashioned laughs at the theater.

ARSENIC AND OLD LACE runs through October 2, 2022 at Court Theatre, 5535 South Ellis Avenue. Tickets are $40.50-$82. Visit CourtTheatre.org.

Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

Originally published on BroadwayWorld.com

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