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Arsenic and Old Lace

a Dark Comedy
CATEGORY : COMEDY
by Joseph Kesselring

COMPANY : Georgia Ensemble Theatre [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Roswell Cultural Arts Center
ID# 3504

SHOWING : November 05, 2009 - November 22, 2009

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PRODUCTION DESCRIPTION

This delightfully wicked comedy revolves around Mortimer Brewster, a theatre-hating drama critic who must deal with his crazy, homicidal family and local police in Brooklyn as he debates whether to go through with his recent engagement to the woman he loves. His two spinster aunts regularly murder lonely old men by poisoning them with arsenic-laced wine. One brother thinks he is Teddy Roosevelt. And another brother has recently had plastic surgery to conceal his murderous identity. This great comical chestnut is an all-time audience favorite.


CAST & CREW LIST
Director Robert Farley
Stage Manager Gretchen Butler
Mortimer Brewster John Ammerman
Officer Brophy Tim Batten
Officer O'Hara Paul Boehlert
Jonathan Brewster Robert Egizio
Officer Klein Rial Ellsworth
Lt. Rooney Norman Ferguson
Abby Brewster Marianne Fraulo
Elaine Harper Dori Garziano
Dr. Einstein Charles Green
Teddy Brewster Rob Hardie
Martha Brewster Nita Hardy
Reverend Harper Steven J Hornibrook
Mr. Witherspoon Murray Sarkin
Mr. Gibbs Jim Wallace
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REVIEWS

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What a blast!
by fanatic
Monday, November 30, 2009
4.5
This was one crazy screwball comedy, a pure a marvel to watch. The direction in particular was top notch, as the script came to life with energetic pacing and delightful staging.

The cast was quite good, although the supporting actors were slightly stronger than the leads. The funniest were Rob Hardie as Teddy and Charles Green as Dr. Einstein. And the cops were wonderful too, especially Paul Boehlaert and Rial Ellsworth. Of the leads, I really liked Robert Egizio as Jonathan the most. The others weren't quite at Egizio's level, but still were very entertaining.

All of it was very entertaining! I had a great time. Very well done, Georgia Ensemble Theatre! [POST A COMMENT REGARDING THIS REVIEW]
Miscast, Mis-timed, Missing that Spark
by playgoer
Sunday, November 22, 2009
2.5
In the past few years, I've experienced community theatre productions of "Arsenic and Old Lace" at New Dawn Theater, New London Theatre, and two high school auditoriums in Gwinnett County. (I would have seen it too at Lawrenceville Community Theatre, had that company not folded just before its scheduled production.) In all those productions, the role of Teddy was played with more verve and charisma than shown by Rob Roy Hardie in Georgia Ensemble Theatre's production, and all those actors made more of an effort to look more like the historical Teddy Roosevelt.

Georgia Ensemble's "Arsenic and Old Lace" is filled with performances that just don't come off, or that miss moments that could help delineate character. The roles of Abby and Martha Brewster are both played as blandly pleasant ladies of a certain age (although appearing barely older than their nephews). Nita Hardy does a nice job overall with the sweetness of Martha, but misses a laugh by her lack of a pleased reaction to nephew Jonathan's compliment to her cooking. Marianne Fraulo doesn't explore the facets of her role that make Abby stronger and more dominant than Martha. She's good at following direction, but does so sometimes without investing the direction with believable motivation (as was also seen in one wooden scene transition recently in "Third" at Horizon Theatre). She's sweetly wry as Abby, and the role needs to be invested with a lot more character.

Of the cast, only Rial Ellsworth in the small role of Officer Abe Klein and Charles Green in the larger role of Dr. Herman Einstein successfully marry the quirks of their characters with the sometimes over-the-top direction of Robert J. Farley. "Arsenic and Old Lace" has a lot of character-driven comedy, and it doesn't need to be goosed up with extraneous touches like John Ammerman banging on a window and shouting "Elaine, Elaine" in tribute to "The Graduate." Mr. Ammerman comes off particularly poorly in the show, seeming too old and too filled with external tics to be believable as Mortimer. It doesn't help that he shows absolutely no signs of struggle when being trussed up with rope.

Dori Garziano is good as Mortimer's fiancee Elaine, with a wonderful slapstick turn as Robert Egizio attempts to carry her through a cellar door. Her hair, though, looks a lot more like early 1990's frizz than 1940's style. At least the Misses Brewster have good-looking gray wigs.

Robert Egizio's performance is low-key compared to most of the others. He's too handsome for his role as the disfigured Jonathan, and his voice is too smooth and mellifluous, but somehow his performance works. The quiet intensity he brings focuses the play. It's only when he enters late in the first act that the play becomes engaging. The wonderful antics of Charles Green as his sidekick Dr. Einstein help immensely too.

The play has been tweaked to enhance the menace of Jonathan. The act break occurs as he bursts through a window, backlit and looming, while his aunts scream. One scene ends with Jonathan indicating he needs just one more victim, then peering out the door where Mortimer has left and saying "And I know just who it will be." The script as written ends the scene with Mortimer re-entering and saying "Well, here I am." It's my favorite line in the play, but Robert J. Farley tossed it out of his rewrite (presumably with the express permission of Dramatic Publishing).

The set is imposing, but that isn't altogether a good thing. It certainly doesn't help that the second floor wall has been painted with space for an obviously missing picture. Perhaps the set designer (Jamie Bullins) read the script before the final revisions were made. Only the slight flare in the upper half of the side walls lends flair to the set. Hallowe'en pictures and crepe decorating the set do not evoke the time period of 1941 at all.

The minor roles are played adequately, and Jim Wallace gives a particularly good performance as Mr. Gibbs. This is a professional production, so the technical aspects of sound and light are top-notch, although the initial fog effect is a bit much. I liked the thunderstorm effects and the little musical touches accompanying Elaine's entrances and window seat openings. They added a bit of whimsy to the show and telegraphed the fact that the production would be painted in broad strokes.

The play being performed at Georgia Ensemble Theatre may not be "Arsenic and Old Lace" as written, but at least it's giving paychecks to a number of local actors. It could have been a lot better with a better-chosen cast and direction that doesn't draw attention to itself and destroy the laugh for "Madness runs in my family. It practically gallops." [POST A COMMENT REGARDING THIS REVIEW]
Gallopping Madness
by Dedalus
Friday, November 20, 2009
4.5
Please Note: This Review first appeared on AtlantaTheatreBuzz.com

For two hours tonight, we will turn back the hands of time, back to a time of eccentric aunts and charmingly lunatic relatives, a time of sinister villains and German sidekicks. Back to a time when the height of gentility was serving a lonely old man a pleasant taste of Elderberry Wine. Poisoned Elderberry Wine.

If you are younger than “a certain age,” you may not know that Joseph Kesselring’s “Arsenic and Old Lace” was once THE stable cash cow for community and repertory theatres. In the sixties and seventies, it was as ubiquitous as “Steel Magnolias” and “Rumors” are today. Yet, it gradually faded from view, and, to the current generation of young theatre artists, it is virtually unknown.

Which, IMHO, is a shame, since it is full of whimsy, menace, dark humor, and etched-in-eccentricity characters. Georgia Ensemble Theatre, under the assured direction of Robert J. Farley, has mounted a lovely and brisk production that fully reminds me why it was once so popular. To be sure, the script is showing a few time-sculpted wrinkles (laugh-lines, if you prefer) that I’ll discuss soon, but, by and large, this is a hugely entertaining piece that will leave you smiling.

To recap, it is Halloween, 1941. The Brewster sisters, Abby and Martha, live in nostalgic splendor in the large Victorian house built by their father decades earlier in Brooklyn, NY. They have three nephews, live-in Teddy (he who believes he is actually Theodore Roosevelt), drop-in Mortimer (he who is a theatre-hating theatre critic), and sinister Jonathan (he who resembles Boris Karloff – and has not been seen for over twenty years). When Mortimer discovers the body of an old man in the window seat, he learns that his aunts have been merrily poisoning gents for years, “mercy killings” of the sad and lonely. In fact, the respectfully maintained burial ground in the cellar is almost at capacity. When Jonathan returns home one dark and stormy night with his own, um, baggage, the play takes off in directions farcical, suspenseful, and giddy. As Mortimer observes, “Insanity runs in my family. It practically gallops!”

The tone is, in fact, a hodgepodge of styles that, through some mysterious elderberry alchemy, coalesce into a seeming unified whole. There are elements of farce (doors opening and closing in the middle of the night, bodies vanishing and appearing in the window seat, Uncle Teddy screaming “Charge!” as he dashes up the steep staircase), of romantic comedy ( a comely parson’s daughter next door is the beloved of Mortimer, who spends far too much time hiding the evidence from her), of self-referential meta-comedy (Jonathan is often described like “looking like Boris Karloff” who played the role in the original Broadway production, and, at one finely staged moment, Mortimer derides the ludicrous plot machinations of the murder mystery he just saw as the same scenario is being enacted behind his back), and of high drama (Jonathan is a truly scary guy, and the first part of Act Two is filled with chills and suspense). And yet, the various tones do not feel disjointed, do not feel as if they belong in different plays.

At a production level, most of the notes are hit perfectly. Marianne Fraulo and Nita Hardy give us two spinster aunts who blithely go about their murderous ways as if it were the kindest thing in the world. Robert Egizio’s Jonathan, though not the Karloff-lookalike everyone thinks he is, is nevertheless menacing and oozing the mad evil that is his forte. Rob Roy Hardie is a funny and blustery Teddy, charming in his insanity and full-force energetic in his various adventures. Dori Garziano is a sweetly exasperated “girl next door.” It is only John Ammerman’s Mortimer who seems slightly off kilter. A decade or two too old for the role, Mr. Ammerman starts off on a good note, but as his frantic freneticism gets more intense, he loses clarity and believability (a bit). The ensemble was filled out with local actors (some of them friends) making G.E.T. debuts and holding their own with all the veterans.

Jamie Bullins’ two-story set nicely evokes a bygone Brooklyn with its ultra-steep staircase and well-dusted gewgaws and wall-paper. The lighting by Christopher P. Kettrey evokes a dark Halloween night, and, when things go black, leaves enough ambient light filtering through the set windows to let us know what (if not who) is going on. The sound and costumes are also well-realized (too-loud cat cries from the cellar notwithstanding).

So, where are the “wrinkles” in the script I mentioned? One problem I’ve always had with the script is that it takes a romantic view of madness. Lunatic relatives were merely eccentrics who needed to be humored. Since the forties, we have learned maybe too much about how madness really devastates families and devours personalities to fully accept this view today. I’ve also usually been disappointed in the interchangeability of the Brewster sisters. Can anyone really articulate how Abby and Martha differ? Here, though, the performances separate them (a bit), but, for the most part, they could probably switch lines and actions without anyone noticing. And, Jonathan can be pretty much of a two-dimensional villain. Though his wickedness is glibly justified as part of the “Brewster Family Madness,” he nevertheless does or says nothing that isn’t wicked or evil. It’s not even the gleeful wickedness of many memorable villains – I suspect even he gets no pleasure from his cruelties. If he displayed anything more than menace, he’d be a far more interesting character (and, to his credit, Mr. Egizio does find some moments of levity and diversity).

So, before we come back from this play of yesteryear, imagine how today’s “workhorses” will fare 70 years from now. Will they hold up as well as this, show the mannerisms and obsessions of their time as well as this? G.E.T. has posted a number of 1941-centric history trivia cards about the lobby, to put the play’s era into context, but, I believe the play does that just fine. This is a show that would shatter if it were moved to another era – it belongs as surely to 1941 as Jonathan’s face belongs to Karloff and Teddy belongs in Happy Farms sanitarium. It pulls us into its world as quickly as madness gallops through the Brewster family. And, to my mind, it’s as difficult for us to come home as it is for the twelve gentlemen to come from the cellar.

This play goes down as smoothly as a nice glass of Elderberry Wine.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)



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An old Chestnut done right
by MrPurple
Monday, November 9, 2009
4.5
This show is often done, and by community theaters in most cases. I was excited to see a pro tehatre company do it. BUT-would they be able to keep the pace brisk? Would the aunts be engaging enough? Would Jonathan Brewster be sinister enough? The answer is YES! It was a pure delight! From Robert Egizio's Jonathan to the perfectly cast aunts! I actually found myself laughing at jokes that I knew were coming! Standouts in the show are of course Nita Hardy and Marianne Fraulo. They had a great chemistry. Rob Hardie brought tremendous energy to Teddy, and Charles Green's Einstein wasincredibly likable and fun to watch. This one is worth checking out (Even if you have been there before!) [POST A COMMENT REGARDING THIS REVIEW]


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