Lakewood Playhouse opened its 75th season Sept. 13 with a gala celebration followed by the opening night of the classic comedy “Arsenic and Old Lace,” directed, fittingly, by Dale Westgaard, who last directed a Lakewood Playhouse show in 1971.
There is a fine line between hilarity and stupidity, and that’s a line the cast of this play walks with surprisingly good balance, falling off the tightrope only occasionally with, at worst, tiny stumbles.
Since its debut as a stage play in 1939 and the popular movie starring Cary Grant five years later, “Arsenic” has been a staple of comedy. It is the tale of two sweet little old ladies whose hobby is murder and their trio of nephews who are eccentric at best and insane at worst. There’s Mortimer (Jacob Tice), the theater critic who hates theater; his evil brother Jonathan (Chris Cantrell); and dear Teddy (Jeffery Weaver), who believes he is Teddy Roosevelt.
The old ladies, Abby (Diana George) and Martha (Rebecca Lea McCarthy), characterize a clichéd parody of little old ladies, which is this production’s biggest downfall. To some audience members this characterization may be hilarious in a “Saturday Night Live” kind of way, but I found their constant bird-like chirping and their quick way of walking with hands held up like chipmunks irksome. Both George and McCarthy show flashes of talent, but the decision to portray Abby and Martha this way was an unfortunate choice, doubly so because they are the linchpins around which the story flows.
Tice as Mortimer is the other major character in the play and he is outstanding. Tall and thin with dimples and a toothy smile, Tice’s physicality is perfect for the part. His comic timing is great, as are his jerky, stumbling movements.
Teddy is such an absurd character that he’s like a bad pun: You either love him or hate him. The idea of a character who believes he is our 26th president and who, furthermore, believes Panama is in the basement of his house is comical genius as a concept, but played out on stage, it is hard to take a big, loud man periodically blowing a bugle badly and shouting, “Charge!” as he runs off stage.
Evil brother Jonathan shows up unexpectedly with a dead body and a weird assistant named Dr. Einstein (Tony Onorati) who skillfully plays the character with an accent reminiscent of Peter Lorre, who played the part in the movie. Dr. Einstein is a plastic surgeon who repeatedly changes Jonathan’s face to hide his identity from the police, leaving scars that make him look like Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein monster.
Cantrell is marvelous. His malevolent facial expressions are comically demonic. This is over-the-top comic acting as it should be done.
Mortimer’s girlfriend, Elaine Harper (Ana Bury), is the one normal person among the major characters, and Bury plays the part convincingly as a woman whose only role is to be a foil to Mortimer, who does not need another foil.
Outstanding in supporting roles are Mark Peterson as the police officer who wants to be a playwright and Steve Tarry as Lt. Rooney, possibly the most gullible police officer in the history of theater.
The impressive set designed by Amanda Sweger is beautiful with rich colors, lovely antique furnishings, nicely detailed props by prop master Virginia Yanoff, and a back wall with a staircase to the second floor bedrooms — all placed at an angle to best use the arena space. This is a set you might expect to find in a proscenium theater with a bigger budget.
Kristen Zetterstrom’s lighting works well with this interior set. Something that seldom happens on stage: When a character flips the switch to turn off the lights in the room, the set actually gets dark, yet the audience can still clearly see what is going on. Kudos for that.
“Arsenic and Old Lace” is light entertainment that provides a happy start to the Lakewood Playhouse’s 75th season.
Arsenic and Old Lace
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 13
Where: Lakewood Playhouse, 5729 Lakewood Towne Center Blvd., Lakewood
Tickets: $19-$25, pay what you can Sept. 26