Some things are classic and don't deserve to be tampered with. ARSENIC AND OLD LACE is one of those things, possibly one of the most perfect comedies ever turned out for the Broadway stage. At 1,444 performances in its initial run starting in 1941, it's been popular since its inception, and the New York Times' opening review said of it that it was "so funny that none of us will ever forget it." (After all, how do you not love a show written in part around Boris Karloff?) Wisely, director Jim Johnson at Susquehanna Stage Co. has not attempted either to gild the lily or to update it, but to give the audience the Halloween-season magic that comes of two homicidal spinster aunts and their secret recipe for elderberry wine.
The set in the original production was based on playwright Joseph Kesselring's one-time home in a boarding house in Kansas, where he stayed while he was in college. (The house is now the college president's home at Bethel College.) The Susquehanna Stage set evokes that same feel, and is a character in the play in its own right, as the house should be; kudos to Tyler Hoffman, technical director, for a parlor, living room, and dining room that own the show, right down to the white wire birdcage on the telephone table and the Chinese screen by the doors in the second floor hallway. Of course there's a flight of stairs leading to that all-important hallway – "the stairs," as sister Martha says, "are always San Juan Hill."
Martha and Abby Brewster, theatre's most beloved homicidal maniacs, are played perfectly by area theater veterans and old friends Jeannie Saulnier and Linde Stern, with the sort of charm that makes you wish they were your own homicidal aunts or great-aunts. If only their nephew Mortimer (Andrew Grant) were so charmed – he wants to call in the police, who all adore the old ladies who feed them tea and sandwiches at all hours. Mortimer is that most esteemed of professional authors, a drama critic, and a fine specimen of one at that, with the neighboring minister's daughter (Jordyn McCrady as a delightfully dizzy Elaine Harper) waiting for him to marry her. Adding to the chaos is nephew Teddy Brewster, who believes he's Teddy Roosevelt and suits his dress and actions to the part. Dylan Johnson is a fine Teddy, looking for all the world like his presumed namesake and ably pulling off a much older character quite believably.
In the play, and in this production, everything changes with the unwelcome appearance of Teddy and Mortimer's brother, the awful and long-absent Jonathan, who looks strangely like Boris Karloff (an inside joke written into the original play, since Karloff not only starred in it but was a principal investor in the show). In this production Jonathan is played by Patrick Hayman, a theatrical newcomer, perhaps a touch too laconically – he's too soft-spoken, his quiet not conveying quite sufficient silent menace, but Hayman does show promise; his underplaying of Jonathan Brewster is a relief in many ways from the hordes of performers who overact Jonathan badly. Hayman can only benefit from more stage time, so it is to be hoped that we will see him in future shows honing his skills.
Supporting players do their jobs ably, including the trio of friendly Brooklyn beat cops, Brophy, Klein, and O'Hara the budding playwright (Bill Perkins, Scott Schmittel, and a riotously over-the-top Steve Hassinger as the theatrically ambitious and blindingly obstuse O'Hara).
Director Johnson has timed the show well, giving it pacing that accentuates the farcical qualities of the plot – the ins and outs of doors and windows, the ups and downs of window seats, and the tossing about of various corpses are handled with the speed required to keep the show from dragging.
Still, the core of this show has always been the Brewster sisters, whose portrayals by Stern and Saulnier are enough to make the audience feel as if they've come to visit Abby and Martha for tea along with the minister. Jacquee Johnson has done a fine job with costume design, with the sisters dressed as they would have over two decades earlier than the period, accentuating their elderly spinster status, and Elaine dressed as fashionably as one might dare while living in your clergyman-father's house at the time.