Appleseed transforms the warhorse comedy Arsenic and Old Lace into a must-see revival
Merry murderers: Nathan Faudree and Binaifer Dabu in Arsenic and Old Lace.
Maybe it’s because he’s such a young director. In two successive outings Dan Rowlands has taken on two of the most shopworn vehicles in American comedy and made us feel that we might not have seen them before. It’s as good as bringing the dead back to life.
Last spring it was his sparkling The Odd Couple for Not Another Theater Company. This time he’s refurbishing Joseph Kesselring’s Arsenic and Old Lace for Appleseed Productions at the Atonement Lutheran Church, 116 W. Glen Ave. In a program note he says his aunt gave him a copy of the play for Christmas five years ago, and he had never heard it before. This is how you erase history, including Cary Grant and Boris Karloff. Just pretend the play is brand new.
By most standards, Joseph Kesselring (1902-1967) was a hapless, flop-prone playwright who achieved one huge hit, Arsenic and Old Lace (1941), partially by breaking the rules. He started out to write a gothic horror play about Kevorkian-like mercy killing and madness, until someone told him it was so silly it should be a comedy. In upending the tone, Kesselring took an audacious turn into pop culture, writing that the villain, Jonathan Brewster, looked like Boris Karloff and then getting Karloff to play the role. Karloff was so crazy about the gag that he invested in and produced the show, which made him unavailable for the Cary Grant movie version, directed by Frank Capra. Because the movie was shot in 1941, Jonathan was impersonated by Raymond Massey, then recently seen as Abraham Lincoln. The movie could not be released until the Broadway run was exhausted in 1944.
Director Rowlands, to his strength, lives in a world where Karloff has lost all resonance. ThePostal Service put him on a commemorative stamp a couple of years ago; how scary is that? In remaking Jonathan, a.k.a. Karloff, Rowlands, with the help of makeup specialist Alan D. Stillman, draws on more recent templates of horror: the Hammer Films studio of Britain. The new Jonathan Brewster (Nathan Faudree) comes with a shaven skull and a face covered with more decoration than Mike Tyson has. His thunderous entrance through a smoky doorway is much enhanced by lighting magic from William Edward White. The British accent is appropriately menacing, especially when Faudree picks up echoes of Karloffian intonation (for oldsters who remember). Having been misused in the title role of Antony and Cleopatra last February for the Syracuse Shakespeare Festival company, Faudree comes back like gangbusters in a bravura performance. In laughs alone he blows away the Capra-Massey version.
Jonathan’s partner in terror is the diminutive, criminal plastic surgeon, Dr. Herman Einstein (Binaifer Dabu), a tippler whose flask never leaves his hand. Other local directors have been straight-jacketed by Frank Capra’s casting of Peter Lorre, an oily Germanic gnome, in that role. By starting fresh, Rowlands makes a play on the other Dr. Einstein, Albert, and thus gives the surgeon a puffy, white fright wig, a white mustache and trim gray suit. Coming off her Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) Award for R2D2 in the Rarely Done-Wit’s End Players musical version of Star Wars, the impish Dabu, an irrepressible comic, cannot resist making Einstein more cutup than cutthroat. As a police report describes Einstein, “4-foot-11, 90 pounds, speaks with a foreign accent of indeterminate origin.”
Evidence that Rowlands is taking the script at its word comes from the opening moment. In most productions, the murderous maiden aunts, Abby Brewster (Anne Fitzgerald) and Martha (Betsy York), are almost indistinguishable. Both get their laughs from a kind of willful innocence, not realizing the horror of putting lonely boarders out of their misery. By giving Martha a startling entrance in a Red Riding Hood cape, designed by Barb Toman, he creates a secondary dialogue of experience vs. youth between the sisters. York’s Martha continues with her coltish energy in subsequent scenes. Both the sisters rely on a cheerful deadpan for most laughs. When asked if she raises her own elderberries for the lethal wine, Abby answers helpfully, “No, but the cemeteries are full of them.”
The aunts’ stay-at-home brother Teddy (John Brackett) suffers a more benign disorder, the delusion that he’s Teddy Roosevelt. At the time the play opened, wordplay on the name “Roosevelt” invited contemporary puns, and T.R. had been dead only 20 years. Brackett’s obsessiveness is deadly serious and his one note is resoundingly loud.
Wedged between the murderous aunts and the criminal brother and sidekick lies the romance between nephew Mortimer Brewster (Justin Polly), and neighbor Elaine Harper (Marguerite Mitchell), daughter of the reactionary minister, Reverend Harper (Roy VanNorstrand). Mortimer writes as a theater critic for a New York City newspaper, which is portrayed as a less than distinguished calling. He tries to save time by writing his reviews on the way to the theater.
The peculiarity of casting Cary Grant in the movie has misled some previous local directors, but Rowlands takes us back to the script.
Justin Polly’s Mortimer more resembles the late Jimmy Stewart, a sane man in an insane family (as his lines keep telling). His first motion is to react, often just to defend himself. As the play wears on, his double- and tripletakes become even more effective.
As the love interest, Marguerite Mitchell’s Elaine mostly has to look beautiful, which she does. But Mitchell is ready to snap the whip whenever Kesselring throws her some worthy lines, such as her tart rejection of Mortimer’s continual nattering about the Brewster family curse: “If you think you’re going to get out of marrying me because you’re insane—you’re crazy!” Perhaps because labor costs were so much lower in the 1940s, Arsenic has four supporting actors in cops’ roles, one Jewish, Officer Klein (Steven Smith,) and three Irish, Brophy (Benjamin Standford), O’Hara (director Rowlands) and Lt. Rooney (Alan D. Stillman). With his trench coat and fedora, Rooney speaks with much authority about things we cannot see and tidies up the exposition in the last 20 minutes. Rowlands’ O’Hara, on the other hand, a selfimportant but naive would-be playwright, pulls together leitmotifs Kesselring has been sprinkling through the dialogue, the constant digs about theatricality itself. Few other broad market comedies of the 1940s got so much mileage with references to Judith Anderson, August Strindberg and Luigi Pirandello.
Three walk-ons make the most of few lines, starting with Roy VanNorstrand as the reactionary Reverend Harper, who reminds us that Kesselring’s play also delivers some social satire. His Brooklyn is a stuffy backwater of WASP privilege, not the multiethnic borough of later depictions. John Traeger as the latearriving Mr. Witherspoon signals that the madness is ending, but Keith Arlington’s earlier visitor, Mr. Gibbs, is the best scene-stealer in a cast overflowing with shtick.
Young director Dan Rowlands ditches history and takes us back 70 years. He revives all the fun that made audiences love Arsenic and Old Lace in the first place.
This show runs through July 2. See Times Table for information.