Arsenic and Old Lace

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The New York Times review of the original 1941 production of “Arsenic and Old Lace” noted that it was “swift, dry, satirical and exciting,” and that it “kept the first-night audience roaring with laughter.” The play’s been watched a few times since then, so not all of the jokes sound as fresh as they did the first time. But the new Hale Center Theater Orem staging demonstrates why the play deserves its designation as a comedy classic. After six decades, it’s still a darn funny show.

It is the story, of course, of the two aging Brewster sisters, Abby (Maureen Eastwood) and Martha (Claudine Booth). As an act of kindness, they have recently been finding lonely men who have no one to care for them, poisoning them, and burying them in the basement of their old Brooklyn manor.

Their nephew, Mortimer (Brinton Wilkins), is understandably alarmed when he discovers this. He has a brother named Teddy (Merrill Dodge) who thinks he’s Roosevelt, and another one named Jonathan (John Lundwall) who’s a homicidal maniac ‹ but THIS takes the cake. Mortimer has recently become engaged to the minister’s daughter Elaine (Lisa Piorczynski), but he has second thoughts when he realizes just how crazy his family is. (In a line that never fails to make me laugh, he tells Elaine, “Insanity runs in my family. It practically gallops.”)

We do not wish to play favorites among a cast as well assembled as this one ‹ it also includes Elwon Bakly as Jonathan’s hunched henchman and Mike Dodge as a talkative policeman ‹ but this old play is made new again by some inspired performances.

Brinton Wilkins, who might be the funniest of Hale’s regular group of actors, plays Mortimer to perfection. His reactions are natural and funny, and it is amusing to watch him collapse deeper and deeper into high-strung, wobbly-voiced exasperation.

As the two old murderesses, it would be hard to find a more entertaining duo than Maureen Eastwood (who also directed) and Claudine Booth. Eastwood has played the role before, and she’s gotten even better at it. Short and ample, she toddles around cutely, as if on wheels, with the ganglier Booth mincing behind her. I don’t know if Booth has played Martha before, but she takes on the role as if she has lived in it forever. The sight of the two of them gliding out of the kitchen is alone enough to inspire giggles. The fact that Abby has a rather British accent and Martha sounds altogether American bothered me for exactly one second, and then stopped. It’s too funny a play to be caught up on such anomalies.

Should you go? Everyone’s fully committed to the lunacy of the script, which makes for a jolly old time.

I think one of the marks of a good production is when lines you've heard before are still made to seem funny. That is especially important in a show like this, where many viewers, if not most, have seen it before.

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