Currently playing at the Bus Stop Theatre is Lions Den Theatre’s production of Joseph Kesselring’s 1939 black comedy Arsenic and Old Lace which plays there until May 20th, 2012. The New York Times said of the Original Broadway production that it was “so funny that none of us will ever forget it” and that was how I felt about the production tonight as well.
Arsenic and Old Lace is a murder mystery stuck in a farce centered on the insane and homicidal Brewster family who are simultaneously attempting to celebrate a funeral, a wedding proposal and contend with the return of an arguably psychopathic prodigal son. In the middle of the madness is Mortimer Brewster, a drama critic who hates the theatre and maintains his reputation as a respectable gentleman by continually writing awful things about it in the newspaper. He is attempting to become engaged to his girlfriend, the Minister’s daughter, Elaine, when he happens upon a disturbing secret in the cellar of his spinster aunts which, in pure farcical delight, sets about a wild chain of events that leads to everyone’s lives being turned upside down and the continually entering and exiting of the characters through a multitude of different doors and windows.
Keith Morrison directs this production and he keeps the momentum of the continuous movement going at a nice brisk pace, which is especially important in a farce with so many characters. There is a lot of great physical humour, especially with Dorion Lang, who plays Mortimer’s brother Teddy, who thinks he is President Roosevelt, and Pasha Ebrahimi, as the more sinister brother Jonathan and Dan Bray, as his henchman Dr. Herman Einstein. There are a few instances where the pacing in the dialogue and the comic timing lacks the punch it needs for certain jokes to land properly, but this may be sorted out quickly once the actors begin to hear where the audiences are laughing.
The most exciting aspect of this play for me was having the opportunity to see so many strong performances from the thirteen member cast and the creation of some extremely memorable, unique and hysterical characters. Colleen MacIsaac and Christine Daniels play Aunt Abby and Aunt Martha respectively and although they should be decades too young for the parts they bring a hilarious Mama’s Family sort of dynamic to the play that suits it quite splendidly. MacIsaac and Daniels have a nice sisterly rapport with one another and both hit a sharp balance between being sweet, doting, old fashioned ladies and being bat shit crazy. Dorian Lang shines brightly as Teddy a character who has completely detached himself from reality, his comic timing is impeccable and his physicality is strikingly reminiscent of Roosevelt. Eric Fitzpatrick brings a winning charm to the Police Officer O’Hara, who is at heart both an idiot and a playwright.
Jesse Robb plays Mortimer Brewster, arguably the only sane character in the play. Most of the characters that I have seen Robb play have been stylized in one way or another and he is quite brilliant at playing these kinds of roles. In this play, Mortimer is at his best when at his wits end of either fear, frustration or confusion. When Robb is given free rein to go big he really comes into his own, but he seems more unsure of himself when in scenes with Rebecca Currie, as his fiancé Elaine, which call for more subtly and are far more grounded in realism. I wanted Mortimer and Elaine to be more like a couple from the musicals that they talk about, a little more star struck with one another and with a bit more fiery and magnetic passion. It’s important that the audience really believe in Mortimer and Elaine and to want their relationship to succeed, like in a typical book musical where the couple is thwarted at the end of Act I, as it makes the payoff sweeter in the end.
Dan Bray and Pasha Ebrahimi are comedic genius as the villainous duo, sort of a mixture of Dr. Frankenstein and Igor and the two cat burglars from 101 Dalmatians. Dan Bray is straight out of Vaudeville in this role- a missing Marx Brother or the fourth stooge- in a performance that continually walks the line of going way too big, but keeps pulling it off against the odds. Pasha Ebrahimi is the opposite extreme, straight out of a B Horror Movie. Jonathan Brewster is born where Boris Karloff meets Riff Raff from the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Ebrahimi plays everything sinisterly straight, pulsating with a maniacal evil that only becomes hilarious when offset by the rest of the play. This juxtaposition in genres, especially between Jonathan and the Doctor is one of the funniest ploys of the play.
As with most shows staged at the beloved Bus Stop Theatre the back flats are a little rickety which makes it difficult to close the doors with any vigour and the lighting is a little choppy, but neither of these things detract too much from the fun of watching this cast tackle these characters and proudly uphold the spirit of Brooklyn.
Arsenic and Old Lace plays at the Bus Stop Theatre (2203 Gottingen Street) until May 20th, 2012. Tickets are $15 for adults, $12 for students/seniors/