Arsenic and Old Lace

It’s hard to imagine a play about two sweet old ladies who poison people and bury them in the basement being anything other than delightful. And the production of “Arsenic and Old Lace” going on at the Springville Playhouse is just that.

Abby (Maureen Eastwood) and Martha (Arlene McGregor) are two old sisters who live together in Brooklyn in the 1940s. They are known all over for being sweet, kind and charitable. (Abby remarks to someone early in the play, “This may not be very nice of me, but I’m beginning to think that Mr. Hitler is not a Christian!”) No one can imagine they would ever do anything sinister and evil.

But sinister and evil is exactly what they do — though, like everything else in this show, it’s played for laughs. Seems whenever they have a visitor who is all alone in the world, they put the person out of his or her supposed misery by slipping some poison into the elderberry wine. Once that’s taken care of, they have their nephew Teddy (George King), who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt, bury the body in the basement (or Panama, as the canal-obsessed Teddy thinks it is).

The twist here is NOT that the two sweet old ladies are actually murderers. No, the twist is that they’re murderers but don’t realize it. They see nothing wrong with what they do, and they make no attempt to hide it from anyone. This results in some very funny moments when Teddy’s brother Mortimer (Matthieu Kohl) finds out about the bodies and is quite flustered to discover that his aunts treat it with such nonchalance.

Complications arise when Mort and Teddy’s black sheep of a brother Jonathan (George Wallace) — a REAL murderer — shows up and commands control of the house. There are several cops, including a long-winded one who wants to be a playwright, and some potential zaniness as the aunts and Jonathan all try to hide various bodies various places.

The farcical elements are never played up quite as much as they could be, but there are plenty of laughs in the show. Most of them center around the two old aunts. Eastwood is a small, plump grandma with a voice like Granny on the Tweety-Bird cartoons (she even looks a bit like her). She rolls around the stage like a marble, cheerful and polite all the time. McGregor’s Martha is tall and wobbly, always looking like she’s about to fall over. The two make an excellent duo, complementing each other perfectly and making for a delightfully wacky couple of old ladies.

Kohl is exasperated and nervous as Mortimer — exactly the way most theater critics are, which is what Mortimer does for a living (though Mort seems more financially successful than the critics I know). King is also sublime as the loony Teddy. His character is purposely one-dimensional, but King plays it to the hilt.

Wallace is creepy as the rather monstrous Jonathan, but he is also stuck on one note and one emotion the entire time. It is ironic that Jonathan mentions being in the “diamond business” at one point, and Wallace sounds just like the droning Tom Shane in his Shane Diamond Company radio commercials — only LESS charismatic, if you can imagine. The third act, where he has a lot to do, moves very slowly and seems to drag quite a bit.

In fact, the whole play moves rather slowly. But it’s all worth it just for the two murderous sisters. Eastwood and McGregor play the roles with such energy, enthusiasm and commitment that you can’t help giggling at them all the time they’re onstage. Their talent keeps the show interesting and funny and well worth the few dollars it will cost you to see it.

Maureen Eastwood, whom I saw and panned in "Blithe Spirit" a year earlier, completely redeemed herself here. She and McGregor were just delightful as the old ladies.

In contrast, there's George Wallace. I would have to go back over my old notes, but it's possible he is the worst actor I've ever seen in my entire life. His performance put me in the mind of "Storm Testament", which believe me is not a good thing to put me in the mind of.

A very odd thing happened when I saw this show. Mortimer, of course, is a theater critic. Well, at one point in the play, he's on the phone trying to get out of reviewing a particular show. He's talking to his editor, and he's suggesting one person after another whom the editor could get to take Mortimer's place. The editor rejects each one. Getting desperate, Mortimer says, "What about the guy who sets my copy, Joe? He works at the second machine from the end." The editor obviously says something to the effect of, "No, don't be ridiculous." Then Mortimer said -- this is true -- "But Al, he could turn out to be another Eric Snider!"

Obviously, that's not in the script. I did some checking and found out that's not even what Mortimer says in each performance -- it was apparently just because they knew I was there that night. It was very strange, to hear my name suddenly pop up in the dialogue. Very strange indeed. I liked it.