Morbidly chuckle-raising and intelligent in its silliness, EUTCo’s ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ was a laugh for even the theatrically inexperienced like me. The Uni Theatre Company exhumed the body of this wartime classic and paraded it across the Barnfield Theatre to bemused and rapturous applause.
Looking at the character sheet, the play is essentially the extended Brewster family and law enforcement that they happen to brush into. These brushes sweep through the Brewster home in Brooklyn, chiefly occupied by Abby and Martha Brewster. Cat Blanchfield and Jessa Thompson brought these Brooklyn socialites to life, with mock-innocence melodrama. Abby and Martha are a pair of elderly, well-meaning serial killers: The Brewsters bury expectations, as well as their victims. Blanchfield and Thompson were squeaky-clean with feline grins.
In the play-within-the-play, any sense of logic was suspended
The players Charleston-ed onto stage to smooth jazz and set up in a cozy tearoom. In the first act, their nephew Mortimer Brewster discovers their dark side. Alex Rowntree gave a voice to the play’s protagonist here: A voice of reason in a breathy New York accent that slowly grows on you. Abby and Martha’s pathology is subtle and deadly. A contrast juts abruptly with Mortimer’s brother Teddy, who brings bombastic bedlam. The second Brewster brother, played gregariously by Thomas Purtill, announced stage exits with a battlecry ‘chaaarge’. Teddy charged into the surreal, believing himself to be President Teddy Roosevelt, and most of the cast to be political dignitaries.
Morbidly chuckle-raising and intelligent in its silliness
Deception and mistaken identity run through the play, whipping up its madness. Believing he’s burying a yellow fever victim, Teddy earned a round of applause whilst slinging a body over his shoulder and humming ‘star spangled banner’. Purtill was hilarious in the role, though not the first to mix the presidential and the lunatic.
In the midst of its madness, the play hosted two romances. Firstly, that of Mortimer and the Elaine, the vicar’s-daughter-next-door, played gracefully by Milly Parker. The couple become engaged in the first act, yet Mortimer’s discovery put their love in jeopardy. He fears that (since all the Brewsters are bonkers) he isn’t husband material, a thought he can’t divulge to his fiancée. Brewster victims, embodied in a noodle-armed dummy, stand dead between the couple.
The Uni Theatre Company exhumed the body of this wartime classic and paraded it across the Barnfield Theatre to bemused and rapturous applause.
The second star-struck lovers appeared with Mortimer’s long–brother, Jonathan Brewster, played by Cam Scriven. Jonathan stomps on stage with his lover/plastic surgeon, the delightfully named ‘Dr. Einstein’ played by Honor Johnston. Plays have included pop-culture icons from their very inception, and like the generals and philosophers wandering around ancient Greek plays, the name and accent of Einstein raised raucous laughter. It makes you wonder if we’ll see celebrities like Kanye West or Danny Dyer in the next generation of Dark comedies.
The humour of the play, rich and dark as lifeblood, spurted from social tension. The farcical insanities of the Brewsters competed and contrasted. Complex and moral in their murders, the Brewster sisters murder just as many as ‘bad guy’ Jonathan, with all his brash bravado. Dr. Einstein keeps the murder score at 12-12, collapsing in Germanic guffaws as Jonathan stomped petulantly. The facial twitches, knife flourishing and pitch-perfect Brooklyn drawl from Scriven’s Jonathan kept the parallel grounded in brutal realism. These covert insanities co-operated with Teddy’s madness. The most insane Brewster, the deluded ‘Roosevelt’ is the loudest and most confused, yet the least dangerous to the on-stage Brooklynites.
Deception and mistaken identity run through the play, whipping up its madness
Through the set, the Costume manager Vicky Floyd must earn serious credit with thoughtful thematics. Both couples matched tastefully, with Mortimer and Elaine resplendent in royal blue. The dastardly Dr. Einstein and Jonathan Brewster were decked in black and white. The latter, consistently sharp, dashed amid the farce with a carefully dishevelled shirt. Chasing him, Brooklyn’s finest kept their slacks up with belts and ping-able braces.
In a bizarre twist, the protagonist is a theatre critic. The play gushes with meta-theatre complexities: Mortimer was away seeing a play called Murder Will Out for most of Act Two, returning in time to save Elaine from Jonathan. He memorably quipped ‘I’ve been at the Barnfield Theatre!’ When asked to be fair to the plays, Mortimer demands that the plays be fair to him. I wonder if the playwright Joseph Kesselring wanted to punish and redeem a critic in a bizarre world of death and laughter. Through Rowntree’s pantomime dramatic irony, Mortimer slagged off the clichés of horror theatre. With these very devices, he’s then bound and gagged centre-stage by Scriven’s Jonathan. I certainly bear this in mind as I type: I tried to hide my notes when the actors declared ‘we are performing in front of a distinguished critic’. How strange to critique the onstage critic. Rowntree was a tad garbled, but endearing.
The humour of the play, rich and dark as lifeblood, spurted from social tension
Another play appeared within in the play, in a mock reading from when the cop-going-on-playwright Officer O’Hara. He runs his play by Mortimer, bound and gagged centre-stage. His captive audiences were bemused, on stage and off by Matthew Varney’s effusions. In the play-within-the-play, any sense of logic was suspended. Varney-as-O’Hara shredded a playscript, tipped water over Mortimer, and exploded a bouquet on the floor. At least the latter filled the theatre with the scent of flowers. Meanwhile, Jonathan ethered himself out of consciousness in the background, a hallucinatory escape. The scene was trippy, but there was no looking away.
Jack Meritt Webster won laughs as Gers, a grumpy near-victim of the murderous sisters. Meritt Webster also became on-stage NYPD Officer Klein, one of a few double features in the play. Jessa Thompson (playing Martha Brewster) also directed, and William Lempriere Johnston has the audience in stitches as two separate characters. Starting the play as a potential Father-in-law to Mortimer, Lempriere Johnston gathered laughs with his languid drawl. In the play’s final scene, he reprised as Mr. Witherspoon, head of the asylum to which most of the Brewsters are sent. Johnston’s highlands lilt was so hilarious that even he cracked a smile, commendable command on the play’s closing night. As Witherspoon, he served more fun than a Wetherspoons.
The play ended with a boozy celebration, a standing ovation, and still, the scent of flowers.