'Arsenic' weak, lace frayed


August 02, 2006

Famous plays, such as "Arsenic and Old Lace," endure the test of time for a reason — they're performed often because they're well written and audiences and enjoy them. And even though the material can generally stand on its own, the latest production of this classic comedy at the Glendale Centre Theatre doesn't do it justice.

The story concerns two endearing sisters, Abby and Martha Brewster (Elaine Rose and Ann Rittenhouse), and the strange antics that take place in their home. Their self-described "charity" is the mercy killing of older gentlemen who have no family so that the men won't be alone in the world.

This well-intentioned but highly problematic situation is accidentally discovered by their nephew Mortimer (Mark Pamplin), who has trouble convincing these sweet ladies that killing people is "not a nice thing to do."


His brother Teddy (Jim Barkley) believes that he's Teddy Roosevelt and conveniently buries the "yellow fever" victims in "Panama" (aka the cellar). So Mortimer is simultaneously trying to juggle his job as a theater critic, keep his confused fiancée, Elaine (Aimee Guichard), from discovering what's going on and figure out how to prevent his aunts from being arrested for murder and ultimately sent to prison.

To further complicate matters, Mortimer's long-lost, nefarious and visibly frightening brother Jonathan (Brian Middleton), shows up with his lackey assistant, Dr. Einstein (Tom Metcalf), and their own cadaver that needs to be disposed of somewhere. Throw in the policeman who really wants to be a playwright (James Knudsen) and the potential for hilarity is ripe with promise.

But that doesn't materialize, which makes for disappointment. The problem was the direction and pacing. The laughs didn't come as often as they should have, and the audience needed more to keep it entertained. It seemed to be lacking that spark of energy to give it the required momentum.

One can't fault the actors, as many of them do a very good job. Mark Pamplin has the unenviable challenge of making people not compare him to Cary Grant's famous film version, and he deserves recognition for his performance, nicely handling the required double-takes and physical comedy the role demands.

Kudos also should be given to Brian Middleton as the menacing and physically scarred Jonathan, drolly delivering such clever lines as, "Practically everyone in Brooklyn needs a new face," that subtly refer to his own surgical problem.

The set is well-decorated and evokes the early 1940s appropriately, as do the occasional interludes of period music.

In comparison to other plays at this theater, both musical and comedy, this particular one doesn't compare. Like the elderberry wine that's central to the plot, maybe this show will improve with age. Until then, drink with caution.

  • PHILLIP HAIN is a Glendale resident.

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