by Jeff Grygny
Social conservatives dream of it; avant-garde artists mock it; scholars find it “problematic:” the normal. For the holiday season, Off the Wall Theater has gone in an interesting direction, mounting a very competent production of that warhorse of community theater, Arsenic and Old Lace, which is all about what is what definitely isn’t normal. Like a whole subset of American comedies, including You Can’t Take It with You, Auntie Mame, Bell, Book and Candle, and A Thousand Clowns, the show clashes oddballs against conventional society to draw comic sparks. And after a year of the digital clown show that passes for the news these days, it’s nice to be able to sink into a silly period comedy. But as with anything from director Dale Gutzman, the show wields a sting—even if this one is pretty gentle.
Joseph Kesselring’s 1939 script hits all the marks of a screwball farce: a smart, affectionate couple, a cast of odd but lovable characters, and a plot that gets progressively more unhinged until it suddenly resolves, just in time for the curtain. As the couple in question, Brittany Meister and Mark Neufang do a fine job channeling Cary Grant and Constance Bennett, her smart confidence playing off his febrile anxiety. But Neufang’s Mortimer Brewster has a problem: as he puts it “Insanity runs in my family—it practically gallops.” Larry Lucasavage seems harmless enough as Uncle Teddy, who thinks he’s Theodore Roosevelt, and the two sweet little old aunties, Abby and Martha, seem like neighborhood saints—until they display a penchant for poisoning lonely bachelors with elderberry wine, that is. And burying them in the cellar. In these roles, Marilyn White and Michelle Waide steal the show, obviously having a wonderful time proudly explaining just how they “helped” 12 old men to a decent burial among caring friends (and really, what more could you ask?).
Gutzman plays Jonathan Brewster, a bona fide psycho killer, who returns to the ladies’ house on the lam, with a shady plastic surgeon in tow—played by Robert Zimmerman (with surprising warmth, considering that Peter Lorre played the part in Frank Capra’s 1944 film adaptation). Rather than delivering these characters as the straightforward villains of the piece, though, Gutzman skews goofy, making them as much buffoonish as sinister. Meanwhile, the ever-versatile Jeremy Welter appears in four different roles, variously disguised in outlandish makeup and campy characterizations. With its vintage narrative style and a naturalistic set by David Roper, showing a comfortable 40s middle-class parlor, the show is as cozy as an old pair of slippers; just right for detoxing from the season’s enforced obligations of religion, family, and commerce.
But one of Gutzman’s recurring themes is the hypocrisy of so-called “decent society.” By turning the villains into clowns, he points, like the silent Spirit of Christmas Future, a bony finger at our collective tombstone. It makes perfect sense that the subversive Capra should choose this play for his escapist wartime comedy. Though ostensibly a farce, Arsenic and Old Lace can’t entirely evade it’s none-too-subtle symbolism. Can it be accidental that the ethically-addled Brewster clan arrived in North America with the pilgrims? As the French historian Michel Foucault pointed out, what society deems normal is actively constructed by institutional authorities: the church, the medical establishment, and the police. These institutions, which are all represented in this short play, create —by violence, if necessary—the invisible walls that delineate the normal from the deviant, the criminal, and the diseased. We hold our small talk over the bones of the innocent murdered.
Merry Christmas, right? But does this mean that good manners are necessarily hypocritical? Not at all. If anything, the world’s violent history would seem to recommend being even kinder to one another. And yet, this light comedy rests on the always-useful-to-remember premise that one may smile and smile and still be a villain.
Off the Wall Theatre presents
Arsenic and Old Lace
by Joseph Kesselring
playing through December 31