In the last few years, Vista’s Broadway Theater co-owner Randall Hickman, directed several light comedies and musicals including Spamalot and The Odd Couple. However, his Premiere Productions interpretation of Arsenic and Old Lace features darker laughs than those recent shows.
Set in 1940’s Brooklyn, the popular play stars a drama critic, Mortimer Brewster (Timothy Benson), who is not the biggest supporter of the arts. In spite of his overall cynical attitude, he has unconditional love for his brother, Uncle Teddy (Robin Thompson) and Aunts Abby (Robin LaValley) and Martha (Eliane Weidauer).
Mortimer does not realize the extent of just how bizarre some of his relatives are. He actually accepts the fact that his brother believes he is former president, Theodore Roosevelt. That being said, the writer is in shock after figuring out that his Aunts are murderers who poison old men with arsenic filled wine.
Hickman and Vista’s Broadway Theater co-owner, Douglas Davis’s, set is delightfully deceptive. On the surface, the Brewster home comes across as an ordinary one with an inviting living room. Yet the abode appears to get more sinister and dangerous during the evening, because of Jennifer Edwards’ dramatic lighting.
Contributing to the progressively unearthly surroundings are Renetta Lloyd’s costumes and Tommy Eyler’s audio. Lloyd’s gothic attire for the unsaintly Brewster’s will make viewers glad they do not live with the family.
Writer, Joseph Kessrling, slowly reveals more frightening information about the Brewsters. This does not just apply to the Aunts, but also Mortimer’s creepy Boris Karloff influenced brother, Jonathan (Joe Paulson).
Jonathan turns out to be just as ruthless as his kinswomen. Some of the most entertaining scenes are the awkward conversations between the three criminals. Since they are equally matched, its difficult time predicting what happens to them throughout the evening.
Hickman makes horrifying situations hilarious to watch. Scenes where characters lives are jeopardized and attempted murder is committed are only played semi-seriously. There is enough tension that the scenes do not appear as completely jokey. But, Hickman’s witty direction offers laughs in each warped scene.
An important person who allows twisted scenarios to be humorous is Benson. His down to earth persona provides an amusing contrast to the other insane Brewsters in Arsenic and Old Lace.
With their naïve and loving behavior, LaValley and Weidauer depict some of the nicest fictional murderers ever written. Neither becomes unlikeable, which is a testament to the duo’s acting.
On the other hand, Jonathan comes across as an evil reprobate. Looking like the spawn of Satan the second he appears, Joe turns Jonathan into a delightfully disturbing brute.
Thompson, Helen Brehm, David Gentry, Kenneth Gray and Davis bring the funny in crucial supporting roles. All of the characters have their own quirks, which play to Hickman’s strength working with ensembles.
Theatregoers are going to have such a good time with Kesserling’s tale, that they might not realize what he is mocking. He originally wrote the play in 1939 as a satire of the WASP elite. While this aspect might not be the focus of the rendition, it adds intelligent depth to the shenanigans.
The bigger message taken away from the show is about how unusual relatives and their dynamics can be. Most families are dysfunctional to some extent. Still, the Brewsters make a lot of troubled families look boring in comparison.
In addition, there is an interesting theme about loyalty in the plot. Abby and Martha might be lawbreakers, yet they have a lot of affection for Mortimer and want him to have a happy life.
Nutty and twisted, Arsenic and Old Lace turns potentially grim subject matter into comedic gold. Be warned that the visit to Escondido should leave many questioning their relationships with their own family.