Black comedy spreads infectious humor

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Carol Sorgen

You’re probably familiar with the popular film, Arsenic and Old Lace, starring Cary Grant. But if you’ve never seen the play that inspired the movie, hightail it down to the Vagabond Players on weekends through Feb. 5 for this thoroughly entertaining comic romp.

This classic theatrical staple, written by American playwright Joseph Kesselring, has been an audience favorite since it first opened on Broadway in 1941. In 1943, the play moved to the Hudson Theater where it ran for 1,444 performances, before closing in 2004.

Of the 12 plays written by Kesselring, Arsenic and Old Lace was the most successful, and, according to the opening night review in the New York Times, was “so funny that none of us will ever forget it.”

The play is a black comedy centering on Mortimer Brewster, a drama critic who must deal with his crazy, homicidal family and local police in Brooklyn, NY, as he wrestles with whether to go through with his recent promise to marry Elaine, the woman he loves.

Insanity in the family

Mortimer’s relatives include two spinster aunts who merrily murder lonely old men by poisoning them with their own concoction of homemade elderberry wine laced with arsenic, strychnine and “just a pinch” of cyanide.

There’s also a brother who believes he is Teddy Roosevelt and digs locks for the Panama Canal in the cellar of the Brewster home (which then serve as graves for the aunts’ victims).

And another brother, a murderer as well, has received plastic surgery to conceal his identity so he now looks like horror-film actor Boris Karloff (an “in” joke, as the part was originally played by Karloff). The surgery was performed by an alcoholic accomplice, Dr. Einstein — a character based on real-life gangland surgeon Joseph Moran.

The surgeon isn’t the only character based on reality.

The plot line revolving around murderous old ladies may also have been inspired by actual events that occurred in Windsor, Conn., where a woman named Amy Archer-Gilligan took in boarders and allegedly poisoned them for their pensions. 

Kesselring taught at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas, and lived in a boarding house called the Goerz House; it is said that many of the features of its living room are reflected in the set of the Brewster sisters’ living room, where the action of the play is set. (The Goerz House is now the home of the college president.)

Kesselring originally wrote the play as a drama, but it is believed that producers Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse convinced Kesselring that it would be much more successful as a comedy. Audiences throughout the years have obviously agreed.

Expressive cast

In the very intimate Vagabond Theatre, which is in the process of spiffing up its lobby with a makeover, the laughter of the audience was contagious, and even the performers could be seen chuckling as well.

True, if you have the movie in your mind’s eye, you may miss having Cary Grant in the role of Mortimer (originally intended for Bob Hope), but then again, who doesn’t?!

Once you’ve cleared that image from your mind, settle in to enjoy the deft work by the cast: Sean Mullin as Mortimer, whose expressive facial and physical looks and gestures say as much as his dialogue; Carol Evans and Joan Crooks as the charmingly batty Aunts Abby and Martha; Torberg Tonnessen as Teddy (Brewster/Roosevelt depending on your — and his — level of insanity!); Roy Hammond as the just-creepy-enough Jonathan Brewster (the Karloff character); and Eric C. Stein, as surgeon Einstein.

The three-act play, which runs two-and-three-quarter hours, with two 10-minute intermissions, takes place entirely in the living room of the Brewster family home in Brooklyn in 1941. From one misunderstanding to another, the play does justice to the term “comedy of errors,” as murders, and murderers, are discovered, hidden, and ultimately sorted out.

And other than some politically incorrect and dated terms (“chink,” for Chinese, for example), you won’t mind this trip back in time one little bit.

Indeed, even if you’re familiar withArsenic and Old Lace, be it the play or the movie, this production is, as they say, well worth the price of admission (which, by the way, runs just $10 to $16).

The Vagabond Players Theatre was formed in Baltimore in 1916 and is currently celebrating 96 years of continuous operation — the longest of any other little theater in the U.S.

The Theatre is located at 806 S. Broadway in Fells Point. The shows run Friday to Sunday through Feb. 5. Show times are 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. on Sunday.

Tickets are available online at www.vagabondplayers.org or by calling (410) 563-9135.