Playing it For Laughs
By Geary Danihy
Commenting on how an audience can affect a production, Harold Clurman, in his book “On Directing,” refers to the “legend” regarding “Arsenic and Old Lace.” He writes that the play “was directed as a thriller but…, because of the opening-night audience’s reaction, was transformed into an uproariously approved farce.”
I don’t know if the legend is true. It seems a bit apocryphal given the script and characters, but even if it is not true it points to a truism – the best (and probably only effective way) to put on a farce is for the actors to, as much as possible, play it straight. This, unfortunately, is not the case with the Ivoryton Playhouse’s presentation of Joseph Kesserling’s 1939 farce (thriller?). Director Julia Kiley has allowed (or directed) her cast to play it for laughs rather than letting the laughs be generated by the situations. Thus, there is a lot of telegraphing of lines, mugging and emoting, making everything seem just a bit forced.
This is not to say that there aren’t a lot of enjoyable moments in this story of two elderly ladies who take pity on lonely men by putting them out of their misery with some doctored elderberry wine. Given the characters and the inherent delightful confusion of bodies appearing and disappearing, it would be impossible not to chuckle occasionally, and some of the biggest chuckles are generated by Tom Libonate as Teddy Brewster, a man who thinks he is President Teddy Roosevelt, and to prove it continuously charges up stairs he believes to be San Juan Hill. Perhaps Libonate is so effective because he is not acting like a man who believes he’s the 26th president, on stage he is a man who believes he’s Roosevelt.
Most of the rest of the cast appear to be acting like the characters they are supposed to be rather than embodying them. This leads to a lot of false voices, stilted movements and too-studied reactions. Putting it another way, I never believed that Alden Rockwell Murphy was Abby Brewster (one of the dotty, deadly sisters), Susan Gayle Pynn was her sister, Martha, Dan Whelton was Mortimer Brewster, Courtney Shaw was Moritmer’s love interest, Elaine Harper, or Robert Boardman was the demented Jonathan Brewster. Why? Because I was too conscious of them as actors portraying their characters.
Such is not the case with R. Bruce Connelly, who plays the quirky Dr. Einstein, a slap-dash, dipsomaniacal plastic surgeon. Like Libonati’s Teddy role, Connelly’s character is intentionally written over-the-top, but Connelly disappears into his character, which means the doctor’s real.
There’s a shadow hovering over this production, as there was looming over the Playhouse’s previous effort, “The Philadelphia Story.” In both cases, the shadows are the black and white flickerings once seen on the silver screen and now available on DVD. Both “The Philadelphia Story” and “Arsenic and Old Lace” were extremely successful on Broadway but reached a much larger audience in their filmic transformations. These transformations (both, oddly enough, starring Cary Grant) created indelible images, images that cannot be denied no matter how hard one tries.
Thus, the task of bringing these plays to the stage, plays that became iconic films, is daunting, and one wonders why the Playhouse decided to try for two in a row. This is not to say that it can’t be done, that those “indelible images” can’t be erased by the power of live theater – the Playhouse certainly did it with last year’s “The Miracle Worker”; any thoughts of Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke were immediately erased by the compelling performances of Andrea Maulella and Jenilee Simons Marques -- but it requires that what is presented on the stage have a life of its own, which cannot happen if the actors are never “consumed” by the characters they are portraying. If, while watching the Playhouse’s production, my mind wandered to moments in the 1944 Frank Capra film, this was only because what was happening on stage wasn’t trenchant enough to trump those moments.
“Arsenic and Old Lace” runs through Sunday, June 27. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.