Cottage Theatre opens its 2020 season with new seats and an absurd, slow start.
Let me be clear: It’s supposed to be slow. Directed by Keith Kessler and written by Joseph Kesselring, Arsenic and Old Lace is a three-act crescendo of murder and mayhem with one of the dullest and wordiest opening scenes ever, for better or for worse.
An impressive maroon and oak Victorian living room (set design by Tony Rust) is the home of the Brooklyn-based Brewsters. Lights come up on spinster aunts Abby and Martha Brewster (Nikki Pagniano and Marcee Shriver Long) entertaining the minister over tea and candlelight while they discuss — I honestly don’t know what, because my attention span is not equipped for polite pleasantries.
Local policemen stop in, tipping their hats to the toy-donating aunts who are definitely not racist, or murdering lonely old men. Sandwiches made and relations discussed and blah, blah, blah… until Teddy Brewster (Dale Flynn) blows his mighty horn.
You see, Teddy thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt, certifiably leading the charge on family dysfunction. Flynn, as Teddy, is the personification of a teddy bear, if a teddy bear is an adorable and harmless man in khaki pajamas digging up the Panama Canal in his basement.
The aunts’ nephew Mortimer (Kory Weimer) is a theater critic who ironically seems just as aloof and shitty as the rest of his family. After all, character assassination is a form of murder. Mortimer is set to marry the neighbor and minister’s daughter, Elaine (Ashlee Winkler), when the aunts spill the wine on their benevolent killing operation.
Throw in a psychotic brother, Jonathon (Earl Rettencutter), who looks like Boris Karloff — a self-referential joke in the original production, in which Karloff played Jonathon — and his Igor sidekick, Dr. Einstein (Dylan Skye), and you’ve got one really awkward family reunion.
Each character is a caricature of some distant cinematic era. Weimer is great as the frantic critic, hair and tie becoming more undone as the plot thickens. Rettencutter is especially good as the slow-talking goon, like the gangsters in old Looney Tunes cartoons.
Wordy and wooly, Pagniano and Shriver-Long are sweet and tempered, entirely exemplifying hard to believe criminal masterminds.
Several clunkers and missed lines are noticeable, especially early on, making Arsenic less seamless than the usual CT productions. The three acts and two intermissions had patrons a little weary from the start, but Milano cookies are available for your comfort and consumption.
The plot plays with convention. Dipping into the meta, repeatedly self-referential and ultimately critiquing itself — all this makes Arsenic and Old Lace a rolling homage to theater itself.
Though not explicitly a comedy, this show is full of hijinks and often silly. Agitated men in suits lob dead (stuffed) bodies across the stage — a physically demanding role. Pagniano and Shriver Long drop deadpan lines in Victorian dresses and loose knit buns. If you’re unfamiliar with the story, a sinister detail closes the curtain, solidifying the matronly aunts as the real masterminds of this story.
A classic for the sheer fun of the old-timey shenanigans, Arsenic and Old Lace could use a facelift for the 21st century. The play itself seems to have trouble with picking an era. It’s set in the ’40s, the aunts are still in the later 1800s and poor Teddy is in the throes of a time warp, confusing the past with the future and vice versa.
CT’s production maintains a rhythm of suspense, with funny and scathing jabs punctuating the duller moments naturally folded into a time sensitive plot. See if for yourself and be sure to stay for the end.
Arsenic and Old Lace runs through Feb. 16 at Cottage Theatre, 700 Village Drive, Cottage Grove. Tickets and more info at CottageTheatre.org.