‘Arsenic’ and ‘Laughter’ not perfect but recommended

Curtain Call March 27, 2014 0 Comments

Damon Bonetti and Jennie Eisenhower are seen in “Arsenic and Old Lace.” (Photo by J. Urdaneta Photography)

Damon Bonetti and Jennie Eisenhower are seen in “Arsenic and Old Lace.” (Photo by J. Urdaneta Photography)

by Clark Groome

Two comedies – the classic “Arsenic and Old Lace” and Neil Simon’s “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” – made up last week’s theater openings. Both productions, while not perfect, had lots to recommend them. Here’s my take on both of them:

Arsenic and Old Lace

Joseph Kesselring’s venerable “Arsenic and Old Lace” is often but not always a joy, particularly for theater critics who either aspire to be or already are Mortimer Brewster, the sane member of the Brewster clan who makes his living as a drama writer.

It first appeared in 1941 to the delight of critics and audiences alike. It introduces us to the maiden Brewster sisters, Abby and Martha, who are generous to a fault. They are so kind and hate to see loneliness and suffering, especially in elderly men, whom they dispatch to their Great Reward with a potent glass of Elderberry wine.

After their demise, nephew Teddy, who imagines himself Teddy Roosevelt, is off to Panama (the cellar) to dig a new lock where each new “yellow fever victim” is laid to rest.

There’s a gangster brother, Jonathan, whom botched plastic surgery has made look like Boris Karloff; several local policemen; Mortimer’s girlfriend; and a couple of others.

It’s a great old play, one that’s getting a rather mixed production at the Walnut Street Theatre through April 27 under Charles Abbott’s direction. This “Arsenic” suffers from some of the same ills that many physical comedies face: some of the performers come across as characters and others not so much.

Best of the Walnut’s lot are the Brewster sisters (Mary Martello as Abby and Jane Ridley as Martha), the various policemen (Fran Prisco, John Jarboe, John-Charles Kelly and Paul L. Nolan) and nephew Mortimer (Damon Bonetti).

The rest of the cast — Ben Dibble’s Teddy, Dan Olmstead’s Jonathan, Laurent Giroux’ Dr. Einstein and even the nearly always reliable Jennie Eisenhower’s Elaine — seems more caffeinated than necessary.

I’ve always been a sucker for the Brewsters and for this play. Still am. Alas, this time — in spite of several strong performances and the spot-on design of Robert Klingelhoefer (set), Colleen Gray (costumes), Shon Causer (lighting) and Jacob Miller (sound) — the Walnut production is an annoyingly schizophrenic approach to its delightfully strange characters.

For tickets call 215-574-3550 or 800-982-2787 or visit www.walnutstreettheatre.org.

Laughter on the 23rd Floor

The third time is the charm.

Something about Neil Simon’s “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” bothered me in my two encounters with the play (in the 1993 Broadway original and four years later at the Walnut Street Theatre). The story about a group of comedy writers for TV’s “The Max Prince Show,” just didn’t feel right.

Max Prince, based on the brilliant but troubled genius Sid Caesar, had assembled perhaps the greatest stable of comedic geniuses ever. They were there to write “The Max Prince Show,” clearly Caesar’s “Your Shows of Shows,” the legendary comedy series that dominated TV during the early 1950s.

Simon himself was in that group, so were Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, Carl Reiner, Mel Tonkin and several others. Simon, whose “23rd Floor” character, Lucas Brickman, acts as the play’s narrator, has written what is both a very funny but equally heartbreaking play.

What was generally missing in the previous productions but not so in Keith Baker’s mounting at Bristol Riverside Theatre (through April 13) was the desperation and sadness that Caesar/Prince felt as he created his show during that period in American history when Senator Joe McCarthy was turning his Senate committee into an inquisition that threatened and destroyed some of America’s greatest artists.

McCarthy’s infamous Black Lists were never far from the minds of the writers who, nonetheless, still created some of the funniest and most memorable comedy ever. Almost all of them — most notably Brooks, Gelbart and Simon — went on to hugely successful careers. The one writer who’s missing from this group is Woody Allen, who didn’t work with Caesar until after “Your Show of Shows” was cancelled. That cancellation came at the exact same time that McCarthy was disciplined by the Senate.

Director Baker’s direction and the terrific ensemble cast capture the comedic genius of the writers and their boss. It also captures Prince’s drug- and booze-fueled life, something that almost killed him (and the real-life Caesar) after his show was cancelled.

While David Edwards’ Prince was too monochromatic in his approach to the character, the rest of the group was just right. So was the physical production, designed by Jason Simms (set), Gina Andreoli (costumes), Kate Ashton (lighting) and Adam B. Orseck (sound).

“Laughter on the 23rd Floor” is often very funny. It is also ultimately very sad. Baker’s revelatory Bristol production captures both elements in just the right balance.

For tickets call 215-785-0100 or visit www.brstage.org.

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