‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ Gets Everything Right, Creating an Unforgettable Night of Theater

Sometimes, but not often enough, an evening at the theater can be a transcendent experience when the right material, director, cast, creative staff, and space combine to create something remarkable.  Dallas Theater Center summons the stars and offers a twinkling good time in its captivating production of Arsenic and Old Lace.

Please excuse this reviewer from unseemly gushing, but what follows is an admiring paean to this gem.  It deserves it.

Premiering on Broadway in 1941, and staged countless times, even as a boffo movie with Cary Grant, Arsenic and Old Lace is one of those plays that garners quite a bit of ardor, but rarely gets an update at serious theaters. Director Scott Schwartz revives the classic with his own whimsical touches while maintaining a traditional and soulful feel.

The story centers on two sisters Martha and Abigail Brewster (Betty Buckley and Tovah Feldshuh) who see it as their religious calling to release old men of their boredom and loneliness by disposing of them with poisoned elderberry wine, and then burying them in their basement with full funeral rites.

Feldshuh as Abigail is a perky sprite of an old auntie.  Her performance is filled with energetic little nuggets and provides a spark for others to follow.  Buckley’s Martha is more stoic in her approach, yet no less a presence and a chill-inducing Broadway voice to boot.  There is a lived-in, comfortable interplay between these pros that convinces that they really are sisters.

They live with their eccentric nephew Teddy (J. Brent Alford), who believes he is Theodore Roosevelt. Alford embodies his role with crazy-like-a-fox aplomb. His San Juan Hill charges up the stairs, his bugle playing and ramrod posture produce an uncanny, winking portrayal of the 26th president.

Another nephew, Mortimer (Lee Trull), a dapper and droll theater critic (let’s not hold that against him) is the play’s straight man or the “sane” one of the Brewster clan. Trull is a gifted physical comedian in the mold of a young Dick Van Dyke, as he uses the entire set, furniture included, as his playground.

Jason Douglas, in a powerhouse DTC debut, plays the bad nephew Jonathan, who has returned to hide out and cause havoc. Douglas plays the Boris Karloff look-alike as a frightening, hulking villain. His partner on the lam, Dr. Einstein (Nehal Joshi), has a well-played, offbeat accent, a hilarious dance scene with a cadaver, and a clever interaction with the rotating set that slays the audience with laughter.

Yes, the stellar, legendary cast is top-loaded, middle-loaded, and even bottom-loaded, to a certain extent, with professional or nearly professional actors. There’s not a weak player in the bunch. They are seamless, synergistic, and top-notch, and all of them simply wonderful.

Scenic design by Anna Louizos uses Victorian and Edwardian notes inspired by Edward Gorey. The set is solid, interesting, practical, and a story in of itself. The depth of intricate elements within is breathtaking. William Ivey Long’s costume design is sumptuous in its accuracy, fit, and tailoring. Nice details like the leather straps and silver whistles on the policemen, and Teddy’s many outfits, to name a few, are a delight to the eye.

Schwartz and company put together an unforgettable show, and one that sets the standard for other theaters to follow as the best of 2011 so far. Counter to the curmudgeonly Mortimer Brewster’s usual savaging of plays in his reviews, this one is positively not tedious, and is most certainly inspired.

Abbey Siegworth and Lee Trull
Nehal Joshi and Jason Douglas
The set of 'Arsenic and Old Lace' at the Kalita Humphreys Theater.

Photos by Brandon Thibodeaux