By Dante J.J. Bevilacqua
For 21st Century Media
After more than 70 years, Joseph Kesselring’s highly amusing masterpiece “Arsenic and Old Lace” is still an incredibly funny show. Swift, dry, satirical and exciting, it had the first-night audience roaring with laughter.
Populated with such delightfully bizarre characters, Kesselring’s script excels at undermining social graces with diabolical charm.
“Arsenic and Old Lace” is from the 1940s. It is listed as a comedy classic, and that it certainly is, a period piece with sharp dialogue throughout and humor that remains fresh and undated. This gives the play an evergreen quality, to be enjoyed by audiences of all ages and backgrounds.
The show gets a marvelously handsome production on the Walnut Street Theatre stage, directed by the steady hand of master craftsman Charles Abbott and featuring terrific turns from Jane Ridley and Mary Martello as Martha and Abby Brewster, a pair of spinster sisters who are always ready to offer a hand to charity and to off lonely, older gentlemen. These two women are a perfect double act, bringing out all the jolly madness of their characters, talking of murder while gently clucking over their nephew’s marriage plans.
The presumably sweet old ladies are both considered pillars of Brooklyn for their charitable works and generosity to their neighbors. But even they, as it is said in the show, have their peculiarities. The peculiarity here is that they turn out to be serial killers.
Deciding that it would be a pity to let vacant rooms remain empty in their old house, the Brewster sisters, Abby and Martha, occasionally take in boarders. They cannot help but notice the loneliness of the older, unattached men whom fate or chance bring to their door.
When these prospective tenants of modest means tell the sisters that they are alone in the world, without family, friends, or hope, the well-meaning sisters literally kill them with kindness by serving them a glass of their homespun elderberry wine, laced with arsenic, plus a dash of strychnine and just a pinch of cyanide.
Mortimer Brewester’s discovery of aunts Abby and Martha’s murderous “good deeds” couldn’t come at a less opportune time, the drama critic’s impending nuptials with the lovely Elaine are placed in jeopardy by the realization that there may well be killers’ blood rushing through his veins.
Certainly there is already more than enough evidence of madness under the Brewster family roof, and not simply because Mortimer’s dearest aunties appear to be homicidal maniacs. Mortimer’s older brother Teddy lives under the delusion that he is former President Theodore Roosevelt, and that the graves he’s been digging down in Abby and Martha’s basement are actually locks for TR’s pet project, the Panama Canal.
Adding to the mix is Mortimer’s insane brother Jonathan, on the lam from the law, wearing a new face (vaguely reminiscent of horror film legend Boris Karloff) compliments of his whiskey-drinking plastic surgeon companion Dr. Einstein.
The pair arrives in Brooklyn dragging along a corpse of their own.
An excellent, talented cast is the prime ingredient of this hilarious Walnut Street production. Dan Olmstead is a special treat as the criminal brother who comes home after a life of mayhem. The actor seems to have gotten in touch with some crazy spark of evil.
Ben Dibble is a rare treat as the certifiably insane nephew Teddy Brewster played by Dibble with unbridled enthusiasm. Any actor must love a role in which he can announce his entrances with a discordant bugle blast and announce his exits by screaming “Charge!”
A special rave goes to Damon Bonetti as the conflicted nephew. His confused reactions to the mounting mayhem around him gives this show all the energy it needs. Also notable is Paul Nolan in the duel roles of Rev. Harper in the first act and a hilarious twist as the police Lieutenant in the second act. Also appearing in this production is Jennie Eisenhower as the girlfriend.
“Arsenic and Old Lace” plays at The Walnut Street Theatre, 9th and Walnut streets, Philadelphia through April 27. Tickets are $10 to $85. For more information:, call (215) 574-3550, (800) 982-2787 or go to walnutstreettheatre.org.