Arsenic and Old Lace

Hands-down winner in the category of Best Reason to Attend This Year’s Utah Shakespearean Festival is: “Arsenic and Old Lace.”

Bill didn’t write this one (Joseph Kesselring did), though he would almost certainly approve of its witty dialogue, skewed characters, wanton murders and all’s-well-that-ends-well conclusion. Director J.R. Sullivan and a best-of-festival cast dedicated themselves to making this community-theater favorite into something new, and they succeeded. The 1941 chestnut has never seemed so fresh.

Laurie Birmingham and Leslie Brott are Abby and Martha Brewster, the sweet old sisters who poison lonely men (thus putting them out of their misery) and bury them in the basement of their stately Brooklyn house. And I don’t mean to say Birmingham and Brott PLAY Abby and Martha; they ARE Abby and Martha. They embody the two biddies flawlessly. Every gesture, inflection and movement are utterly perfect. When Abby says, “I’m starting to think this Mr. Hitler is not a Christian,” there is no question but that she normally gives everyone, including ruthless dictators, the benefit of the doubt.

Brian Vaughn plays their nephew, Mortimer, a rather snide theater critic who must cope with the insanity that runs in his family. (“It practically gallops,” he says.) Here again is a familiar role — the sane man surrounded by lunacy — that comes alive thanks to a consummate actor’s commitment. The more befuddled Mortimer gets, running madly in search of a solution, the funnier Vaughn is.

The villain in the play is Mortimer’s long-lost brother Jonathan (David Ivers), a murderer who shows up at the house one night with associate Dr. Einstein (Mark Brown) in need of a hideout. Jonathan soon learns he is not the only Brewster in the business of killing people — which means there is equal blackmail material on both sides of the equation.

While Jonathan is often played more creepy than funny, David Ivers manages to convey both qualities. His natural voice is soft and friendly, which makes a comically menacing character like Jonathan all the more amusing.

Also in the cast are Kieran Connolly as Teddy, Mortimer’s brother who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt; and Mary Dolson as Elaine, Mortimer’s fiancee with the violently bouncy curls.

Timing is everything, and the comic timing of this cast is impeccable. It’s a well-oiled machine that whirs, spins and whizzes beautifully from start to finish.

I interviewed Brian Vaughn and David Ivers for a feature story to run with all these reviews. They're very funny and personable in real life, and both have a marvelous flair for comedy on stage, too.

In the interview, I asked what it was like working at the festival. Most of the actors are young and single, they're all housed together, it's summertime ... is it just one big party? Brian leaned in and said, "What are you REALLY asking?" David said, "How liberal is this paper you write for?"