Arsenic & Old Lace at Ivoryton Playhouse -- Too Close for Comfort

By Amy J. Barry

There’s nothing quite so satisfying that offers such pure escapism as a well acted and executed murder mystery and the Ivoryton Playhouse aims well, and for the most part hits the mark, in it’s production of the genre classic Arsenic & Old Lace. Best known for the film adaptation starring Cary Grant, directed by Frank Capra, the Playhouse production is directed by Julia Kiley.
What brings the dark comedy chillingly close to home is that Joseph Kesselring, who wrote the play in 1939, based it on the real life 1911 murders by Amy Archer-Gilligan (“Sister Amy”) of two husbands and 66 patients in her Windsor, Connecticut rooming house for the elderly and chronic invalids. Her weapon was a lemonade and arsenic cocktail.
The play is set, not in Windsor, but in Brooklyn where the spinster Brewster sisters, Abby (Alden Rockwell Murphy) and Martha (Susan Gayle Pynn) are pillars of the community, known for their charitable, Christian acts.
What the gentle and genteel sisters are not known for is spiking elderberry wine with arsenic and serving it to lonely old men whom they deem would be happier dead than alive. Their crazy younger brother Teddy (Tom Libonate), who lives with them and is convinced he’s President Roosevelt, is an unknowing accomplice. He thinks he’s digging locks for the Panama Canal (not a burial ground) in the cellar.
When their nephew Mortimer (Dan Whelton), a theater critic, discovers what his aunts are covering up in the basement, he does everything he can to keep it covered up as he is engaged to be married to Elaine (Courtney Shaw) the minister’s daughter and does not want the scandal of his insane family to get out.
The plot is further complicated by the arrival of Jonathan (Robert Boardman), their escaped convict nephew and Mortimer’s older brother, along with his partner in crime Dr. Einstein (R. Bruce Connelly).
Some of the acting, mostly in minor roles, is spotty and strained, but there are strong lead performances that keep the production glued together.
Murphy and Pynn are delightful as the murderous sisters, beautifully communicating their illogical logic that they are performing good and righteous deeds by knocking off one boarder after another. The fact that they are physical polar opposites—Murphy is tall and slender and Pynn is short and stout, only adds to the humor. Murphy maintains a hysterical look of stunned incredulity throughout the performance—one feels that she is thoroughly ensconced in her character.
Whelton is also a fine purveyor of physical comedy as he reacts in horror to his aunts’ calm explanation of their maudlin behavior, trying to keep a lid (literally) on the escalating mayhem.
Boardman and Connelly make a truly frightening and as eccentric-as-they- come duo—appropriately elevating the creepy, dark side of the play. On the other hand Libonate provides hilarious comic relief as he charges up the full-scale staircase of the Victorian home—superbly designed down to every last detail by Rachel Reynolds —in a safari suit and helmet—one of many terrific costumes by Pam Puente.
There’s no doubt the play is too long and could benefit from getting into the action sooner and wrapping it up faster and punchier—but there’s certainly enough suspense, silliness, and frenetic action to keep an audience engaged and having fun.
Performances of Arsenic & Old Lace run through June 27 at Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main St., Ivoryton. M.William Phelps, author of The Devil’s Rooming House—the first book about Amy Archer-Gilligan, America’s most prolific serial killer—will give a talk and sign copies of his book following the June 24 evening performance.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 860-767-7318 or visiting <> .
This review was published in Shore Publishing Community Newspapers, June 24, 2010 and online

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