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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Arsenic and Old Lace
By Bruce T. Paddock

It's a terrible thing to do — to bury a good Methodist with a foreigner.— Abby
Arsenic and Old Lace
Mia Dillon and Harriet Harris
Theater is an insanely collaborative undertaking. For any given production, the efforts and talents of the playwright, producers, director, actors, and designers all contribute significantly to its success, or lack thereof. It would be nice to think that a talented individual will shine no matter what the surroundings but even the most talented actors can be undermined by poor direction and mediocre acting.

There are, however, a few bullet-proof scripts out there. Michael Frayn's Noises Off is one. Its physical comedy is so intricate and brilliant that as long as the actors say and do the right things at the right times, the audience will laugh.

At the other end of the spectrum from Noises Off, but just as reliable, is Joseph Kesselring's 1941 masterpiece, Arsenic and Old Lace. Starting from not just one but several absurd premises, and jam-packed with laugh lines, this script is so good that you'd have to work really hard to mess it up.

Fortunately, the folks at Berkshire Theatre Group are doing no such thing. This production doesn't merely honor the script, it celebrates it. Everyone involved appears to be having a blast as they do their damnedest to bring out the best in Kesselring's script. For the most part, they are successful.

Mia Dillon and Harriet Harris are each several decades this side of elderly, but both are completely believable as maiden aunts Martha and Abby. They also negotiate the tricky task of making two characters who are — spoiler alert —— psychotic serial killers not just sympathetic but positively endearing. The script tells us that nephew Mortimer loves these two old nut jobs; Dillon and Harris make the audience love them as well.

Both actors employ a naturalistic acting style, as if they aren't aware they're in a farce. This is a wise choice given the outrageous things the characters say and do. Broad humor and mugging would undermine the jokes, but subtlety and sincerity make them sing. The night I attended, the longest laugh, a good 10 or 15 seconds, came from Harris's delivery of the simple line, "Who can that be?"

While the two leads are grounded in reality, the rest of the cast is all over the map. Gerry McIntyre's theater-struck Officer O'Hara is about as out-there as a character can be without floppy shoes and a squirting boutonniere. With his enormous energy and hugely infectious grin, McIntyre is delightful in a role that could be contrived or annoying.

Graham Rowat as the male lead, Mortimer, also goes for surface affect over characterization. But his performance, full of double takes and mugging and rushed line deliveries, isn't as successful. I think the character, like those of his aunts, requires an underpinning of reality as a counterpoint to the absurdism.

For some reason director Gregg Edelman has allowed her, or maybe instructed, Katie Birenbolm as Mortimer's fiancee, Elaine to deliver most of her punch lines directly to the audience. Breaking the fourth wall once is jarring; doing it constantly is annoying. In a previous production I saw several years ago I thought that Kesselring kept Elaine offstage for too much of the play. This time I was glad of it.

Matt Sullivan as Mortimer's brother Jonathan, yet another homicidal maniac in the family who has had his face surgically altered to resemble Boris Karloff, is hampered by his own physiology. It's hard for him to appear threatening next to the taller Rowat. Speaking with Karloff's English accent makes the similarity even stronger. Nonetheless, his is one of the tightest, cleanest, and most consistent performances of the evening.

For my money, though, highest honors go to Tom Story's Dr. Einstein, Jonathan's plastic surgeon, traveling companion, and toady. This fey, fawning, alcoholic bundle of nerves had me laughing out loud every time he opened his mouth. And that, of course, is the point. For all its plusses and minuses, this is still a hilarious, entertaining production.

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Arsenic and Old Lace by Joseph Kesselring
Directed by Gregg Edelman
Cast: Katie Birenboim (Elaine Harper) Ryan Chittaphong (Officer Klein) Mia Dillon (Martha Brewster) Timothy Gulan (Teddy) Harriet Harris (Abby Brewster) Walter Hudson (Mr. Witherspoon/Mr. Gibbs) Gerry McIntyre (Officer O'Hara) Graham Rowat (Mortimer Brewster) Tom Story (Dr. Einstein) Matt Sullivan (Jonathan Brewster) Michael Sullivan (Officer Brophy) Walton Wilson (The Rev. Dr. Harper/Lieutenant Rooney) Scenic design: Randall Parsons
Lighting design: Alan Edwards
Costume design: Hunter Kaczorowski
Sound design: Scott Killian
Wig design: J. Jared Janas
Stage Manager: Jason Weixelman
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes; two intermissions
The Fitzpatrick Main Stage; 83 East Main Street, Stockbridge, MA
From 7/27/17; opening 7/29/17; closing 8/19/17
Reviewed by Bruce T. Paddock at July 29 performance

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