Review: Court Theatre’s Arsenic and Old Lace Serves Up a Mild Cocktail

Joseph Kesselring’s 1941 Arsenic and Old Lace is a familiar property, frequently revived and indelibly captured on film in Frank Capra’s 1944 movie starring Cary Grant.

Its popularity is well deserved. A classic mid-century American farce, it has more than its share of slamming doors, clueless cops, and endearing oddballs. And to that tried-and-true mix, it famously adds a special dose of dark—murderous—humor: in an almost-bucolic Brooklyn, two little old ladies are poisoning lonely old men with their homemade elderberry wine (dosed with just the right combo of arsenic, strychnine and a touch of cyanide).

Celeste Williams, Allen D. Edge, TayLar. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Court’s tightly constructed and expertly played first act introduces us to the main characters: sisters Abby (TayLar) and Martha Brewster (Celeste Williams) – both charming here as the well-intentioned poisoners who pass out beef broth and arsenic with equal amounts of eccentric do-goodery. They are joined by the delightful Allen D. Edge, who steals every scene he is in as their nephew Teddy, a man who thinks he is President Theodore Roosevelt.

Eric Gerard brings an athletic energy to his role of Mortimer Brewster, the only sane member of the family. Sliding down banisters and leaping across the stage with increasing alarm, Gerard displays appropriately abject panic as he realizes what his dotty aunts have been up to—and who they have stowed under the window seat.

Court stalwart A.C. Smith and new-to-the-company Guy Van Swearingen round out the main cast as prodigal-brother Jonathan Brewster and his drunk companion Dr. Einstein. Smith is genuinely menacing and simultaneously hilarious as an escaped murderer–not an easy thing; and Van Swearingen is both creepy and amusing as his demented medical sidekick.

A.C. Smith and Guy Van Swearingen. On the stairs, TayLar and Celeste Williams. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

By the end of the first act, all the ingredients are in place for a cracker-jack production of this beloved chestnut.

But—the thing about chestnuts is, to be really delicious, they must be perfectly roasted. And while that perfection is mostly achieved in the show’s first act, somewhere in the middle of an overlong act two, the production, directed by Ron OJ Parson, begins to lose its savor: the timing slows, the energy lags and the two best characters, Aunts Abby and Martha, are too-often offstage.

In the film, Capra avoids these problems through some judicious cuts and the presence of Cary Grant. This production doesn’t have either of those.

What it does have, along with a near flawless first act, are a beautiful set, expert character actors, and plenty of built-in goodwill—enough to earn a mild recommendation.

Arsenic and Old Lace runs through October 2 at the Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave. Tickets for the 2.5-hour show are available at www.CourtTheatre.org and cost between $40 to $82.  

For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.

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Doug Mose
Doug Mose

Doug Mose grew up on a farm in western Illinois, and moved to the big city to go to grad school. He lives with his husband Jim in Printers Row. When he’s not writing for Third Coast Review, Doug works as a business writer.

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