Theatre: “Arsenic and Old Lace,” Drama Society’s Fall farce, serves insanity spiked with homicide

BY MATTHEW HUTCHINS

Jonathan Brewster, played by Randall Adams ’10, hatches a diabolical plot
Annie Smith ?12 and Brienne Letourneau ’10 watch as one of their hapless victims imbibes a poisoned drink

A cup of tea. Some finger sandwiches. A plate of roast beef with a glass of elderberry wine. Sweet merciful wine. Joseph Kesserling’s Arsenic and Old Lace takes the simple pleasures of American family life and transmogrifies them into the absurd veneer of a family of homicidal psychotics. This combination of banality and madness proved to be an excellent choice for the HLS Drama Society’s fall show, produced by Greg LeSaint ’11 and directed by Kristin Kramer ’10. While HLS students may sometimes feel trapped within a fiction that is simultaneously hum-drum and permeated by paranoia, it sometimes takes a well-written drama to put things in perspective.

Mortimer Brewster is a rising theater critic for a New York newspaper. He and his girlfriend, Elaine Harper, are passionately in love and decide to get married. While Elaine runs off to tell her father, the pastor, that she will be out with Mortimer that night, Aunt Abby and Aunt Martha prepare tea and sandwiches to celebrate the young couple’s engagement. Ensconsced in such banal circumstances, the shrewd Mortimer swaggers with assurance that he has charted out his life’s plan.

But like a 1L who gets cold-called on the first day to explain the policy behind Dudley and Stephens, Mortimer, played by Stephen Cha-Kim ’11, soon finds himself clammy and stammering as he struggles to refute the rationalization of homicide. While his aunties are in the kitchen, Mortimer discoveres the body of a man, hidden in the window-seat cabinet. No worries, say Aunt Abby and Aunt Martha. President Roosevelt will go to Panama and dig another set of canal locks, and we’ll take the body down tonight for a proper Christian funeral. There’s already eleven more bodies down in the basement.

Annie Smith ’12 and Brienne Letourneau ’10, playing the saccharine aunties Abby and Martha, carried the absurdity of the play magnificently through their reproduction of all the familiar mannerisms of kind spinsters. Later, Mortimer’s long-lost brother, the psychotic killer Jonathan Brewster, played by Randall Adams ’10, returns home along with his side-kick, Dr. Einstein, planning to take over the house and establish an underground plastic surgery clinic to do face-changes for criminals. For the aunties, this rude intrusion becomes downright unbearable when they discover a second dead body, brought by brother Jonathan, hidden in the window seat. How can they give a proper funeral to a complete stranger?

In a semester filled with employment anxieties and uncertainty about the future, Arsenic offers a few farcical glimpses of cause for hope.  As we see the plight of Mortimer go from bad to worse during the course of the play, it serves as a reminder to appreciate the little things, like home cooked meals that aren’t laced with poison and the certainty that when we go to sleep at night we aren’t resting mere inches away from a corpse. Running around looking for a job should seem like a piece of cake after seeing Mortimer frantically try to get his brother Teddy committed so that he can pin the dozen bodies in the cellar on the hapless loony. And the occasional disagreement over Thanksgiving dinner should seem like nothing compared to the “Melbourne” treatment Jonathan devised to torture Mortimer after being asked to get out of town. Yes, we have plenty of characters around campus that are devious or detestable, irritating or insecure, superficial or self-important. But as the Drama Society periodically reminds us, the special community we live in is full of talented people who are genuinely funny, sometimes because of the shows they produce on a stage in Pound Hall, and sometimes because they deserve to be portrayed there.

Comments