Joseph O. Kesselring’s Classic 1941 Black Comedy “Arsenic and Old Lace” Is Still Devilishly Funny

The final play of the Towne Players of Garner’s 2012 season will be New York City playwright and screenwriter Joseph O. Kesselring’s classic black comedy, Arsenic and Old Lace. This community-theater production will run Oct. 12, 13, and 18-20 at the Garner Performing Arts Center (formerly Garner Historic Auditorium).

Arsenic and Old Lace focuses on the oddball Brewster family of Brooklyn, NY, which has a whole raft of skeletons in their closets. Abby and Martha Brewster (played by Francis Stanley and Kelly Stansell) are two sweet but lethal little old ladies who have turned home into a boarding house for single gentlemen of modest means, many of whom are lost and lonely souls estranged from or abandoned by their families.

So, as an act of charity, the balmy Brewster sisters put their hapless gentlemen boarders out of their misery by slipping a lethal dose of arsenic into the homemade elderberry wine that they serve guests and then calling their strapping but utterly delusional nephew Teddy (Tim Upchurch) to bury their victims’ bodies in the basement. Teddy Brewster thinks that he is Rough Rider Colonel and later President Teddy Roosevelt and that he is charging up San Juan Hill whenever he dashes upstairs. Indeed, every time he digs another grave in the basement, Teddy thinks he is digging another lock in the Panama Canal!

All goes well until Martha and Abby’s beloved nephew, drama critic Mortimer Brewster (Stephen Johnson), discovers his aunts’ shocking secret. Mortimer is horrified and desperate to conceal his eccentric aunts’ string of mercy killings — and the apparently virulent strain of madness in the Brewster family DNA — from his fiancée Elaine Harper (Paige Bruner).

But before Mortimer can rescue the remaining boarders from his aunts, his long-lost brother and the black sheep of the family — sadistic murderer-on-the-lam Jonathan Brewster (Stuart Jonap) — shows up with shaky, hard-drinking plastic surgeon Dr. Einstein (Tim Wiest) in tow. Jonathan is furious because his 1940s-style Extreme Makeover has left him looking like Frankenstein star Boris Karloff! And now Mortimer has to save them all from Jonathan — and his aunts.

In addition to the performers named above, the Towne Players’ cast for Arsenic and Old Lace includes (in alphabetical order) Jack Chapman as Mr. Witherspoon, Tom Davey as Lt. Rooney, David Flood as Mr. Gibbs, Eddie Hodges as Officer Klein, Don Howard as the Rev. Harper, Scott Renz as Officer Brophy, and Tim Stancil as Officer O’Hara.

The show’s creative team includes the husband-and-wife duo of director Beth Honeycutt and technical director Scott Honeycutt, proud parents of newly crowned Miss North Carolina 2012 Arlie Honeycutt. Rebecca Stiles is stage manager for Arsenic and Old Lace.

Originally entitled Bodies in Our Cellars, but extensively revamped and rewritten by producers Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, the highly successful playwriting and producing team behind Life with Father (1939), State of the Union (1945), and The Sound of Music (1959), Arsenic and Old Lace made its Broadway debut on Jan. 10, 1941 at the Fulton Theatre. On Sept. 25, 1943, the show moved to the Hudson Theatre, where it closed on June 17, 1944, after a then-record 1,444 performances.

In reviewing the show’s original Broadway production, New York Times drama critic Brooks Atkinson wrote, “Let’s not exaggerate! At some time there may have been a funnier murder charade than Arsenic and Old Lace … but the supposition is purely academic. Joseph Kesselring has written one so funny none of us will ever forget it.”

Atkinson also wrote, “Nothing in Mr. Kesselring’s record has prepared us for the humor and ingenuity of Arsenic and Old Lace. He wrote There’s Wisdom in Women in 1935 and Cross Town in 1937. But his murder drama is compact with plot and comic situation…. The lines are bright. The story is mad and unhackneyed. Although the scene is always on the verge of macabre and the atmosphere is horribly ominous, Mr. Kesselring does not have to stoop to clutching hands, pistol shots or lethal screams to get his effects. He has written a murder play as legitimate as farce-comedy.”

The 1944 motion-picture version of Arsenic and Old Lace, directed by Frank Capra (It Happened One Night) from a screenplay by Julius J. Epstein and his twin brother, Philip G. Epstein, starred Cary Grant as Mortimer Brewster. But Grant hated his performance — Mortimer Brewster was his least-favorite film role — and the debonair actor thought his portrayal was hopelessly flawed by overacting. However, audiences, then and now, disagreed. They love Grant’s frantic double-takes as family matters go from bad to worse.

The Towne Plays present ARSENIC AND OLD LACE at 8 p.m. Oct. 12, 13, 18, and 19 and 2 and 8 p.m. Oct. 20 in the Garner Performing Arts Center, 742 W. Garner Rd., Garner, North Carolina 27529.

TICKETS: $12 ($10 students and seniors 55+).

BOX OFFICE: Tickets will be sold at the door.






The Play: (Wikipedia).

Study Guide: (Utah Shakespeare Festival).

The Playwright: (Wikipedia).

The Film: (Wikipedia) and (Internet Movie Database).

The Director: (Facebook).


Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review, a FREE weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter that provides more comprehensive, in-depth coverage of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill theater than all of the other news media combined. This preview is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.

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By Robert W. McDowell

Robert W. McDowell is a Raleigh, NC-based freelance writer, editor, and critic. He has written theater, film, book, and music previews and reviews for The News & Observer, The Raleigh Times, Spectator Magazine, and Classical Voice of North Carolina, all based in Raleigh. In 1980-91, he covered business, industry, government, and education for (We the People of) North Carolina magazine, published monthly by N.C. Citizens for Business and Industry. In April 2001, McDowell started Robert's Reviews, a FREE weekly e-mail newsletter that provides comprehensive, in-depth coverage of the performing arts in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina, which includes Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, and Carrboro. Triangle Review is the latest-and-greatest version of McDowell's original newsletter. (To start your FREE subscription, e-mail robertm748[at] and type SUBSCRIBE TR in the Subject: line.) From December 1980 until September 2017, McDowell served on the board of directors of The Cinema, Inc., a Raleigh-based nonprofit film society formed in 1966. He currently publishes a weekly list of FREE advance screenings of movies in the Triangle area. (To have your e-mail address added to this FREE list, e-mail robertm748[at] and type SUBSCRIBE FFL FREE in the Subject: line.) McDowell also co-edited and supervised the production of Jim Valvano's Guide to Great Eating (JTV Enterprises, 1984), a 224-page sports celebrity cookbook; and he served as a fact checker for Valvano: They Gave Me a Lifetime Contract, and Then They Declared Me Dead (Pocket Books, 1991).