Sunday, December 1, 2013

Arsenic and Old Lace by Joseph Kesselring, Different Stages at Vortex Repertory, November 15 - December 14, 2013

Arsenic and Old Lace Joseph Kesselring Different Stages Austin TX
ALT review

by Michael Meigs

Arsenic and Old Lace by Joseph Kesselring is one of those whimsical comedies that just won't die. The playwright wins our sympathies with a pair of comforting maiden aunts, their capable journalist nephew Mortimer and a sweet parson's daughter. He then plays a series of clever modulations in madness -- from the harmless to the surprising to the pathological.

The play and the Jimmy Stewart movie are familiar, so this review's not likely to spoil it for anyone. You already knew about the poisoned elderberry wine, right? And the fact that Mortimer's brother Teddy, nutty as a fruitcake, has been helping his aunts by excavating 'Panama Canal locks' in the basement for use as the final resting places for a succession of lonely old men?

If you didn't, my apologies to you. But don't worry, for that surprise comes early in the action, as much for our protagonist Mortimer as for the audience. His quandary is how to deal with this revelation that, incredibly, has escaped his attention for months or maybe for years.

Arsenic and Old Lace Joseph Kesselring Different Stages Austin TX
Karen Jambon, Jennifer Underwood (photo: Bret Brookshire)

Entirely normal except for their characters' belief in the beneficial effects of poison, Jennifer Underwood and Karen Jambon as the maiden aunts are mild, sweet and droll. It's a treat to see these partners playing together. Jambon's little-lady bird-steps are a bit affected, but otherwise these ladies are the sorts with whom you'd love to bake gingerbread.

Joe Hartman's bully portrait of Teddy (not) Roosevelt is a lot of fun, too -- especially in those moments when he backs ecstatically wide-eyed into the basement stairway. And while we're handing out compliments, bravo for Sarah Danko as Mortimer's girlfriend/fiancée Elaine. The lines assigned to her were written for a meek and progressively frustrated young thing, but Danko gives them an indignant bite often enough to suggest that maybe she's more of a woman that the hapless Mortimer actually deserves.

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