Forest Moon Theater, Wake Forest’s first and only community theater, opened its fourth season this weekend with Arsenic and Old Lace, a dark comedy by American playwright Joseph O. Kesselring. Written in 1939, the play made its Broadway debut in 1941 and ran for 1,444 performances, closing in 1944. The original Broadway cast included Boris Karloff as the maniacal Jonathan Brewster. But the title is, perhaps, most recognizable as a 1944 Warner Bros. film, starring Cary Grant and directed by Frank Capra.
The essential conflict of the play is simple, and one you may have heard before: two Little Old Ladies are hiding a dead body in their adorable little bed-and-breakfast. Their Handsome Nephew comes to visit and gets suspicious. Hilarity ensues as a variety of characters come and go; and the stakes — and the farce — goes through the roof. Author Joseph Kesselring was very critical of the American WASP elite of 1939, and this play reflects his belief that this elite had an inherently murderous heritage.
The current production of Arsenic and Old Lace is being staged at the Wake Forest Renaissance Centre, a rentable venue used for weddings, concerts, film screenings, theatrical productions, and educational programs. That being said, the space is not ideal for proscenium-style dramatic presentation. Stage space is minimal, and the lighting equipment is abysmally limited.
Despite the limits of the space, scenic designer David Bissette has constructed a set, with chief carpenter Tony Womak, that serves the story well, and is pleasant to look at, containing the knickknacks, antiques, and frilly doings of granny’s drawing room. It serves its function, aside from a few oddities, such as a character’s hat flying through a window pane that should really be filled with glass. The cutest touch is the translucent cityscape backdrop, which is lit effectively.
Unfortunately for lighting designer Erika Stoll, this space is not equipped to handle her design intentions. A couple of very lovely transitions are presented, suggesting gradual changes in time of day; but these are overshadowed, quite literally, by inconsistent pools of bluish LED lighting, the inability for fading of any kind to occur, practical lighting that is either half-working or half-used, and the inability for light to adequately make its way onto the actors’ faces. A huge portion of the second half of the show unfolds in near-darkness, and it cannot be determined whether that is a stylistic choice or something went wrong with the board.
Mary Galecki’s costuming is the show’s design strength. The pieces feel appropriate to period and character without becoming distractions. The hair and makeup designed by Heather Dahlberg and Abbey Collins are mostly effective, except in the case of one actor’s ridiculous fake moustache. Allison Schulz rose to a challenging prospect for a props manager: a farcical, WWII-era murder mystery. Her props integrate seamlessly with Bissette’s set dressing.
From the first awkward few lines of the play, we know we are in for something off-kilter. Several cast members seem unsteady with their lines, and this makes for misfired jokes and mistimed pieces of blocking, leaving much of the play’s humor buried in the basement.
Director Jason Tyne-Zimmerman seems to have avoided much of the fast-paced scurrying about that is so integral to farce. Actors often plant themselves in a spot and stay there, or move awkwardly with little purpose. Many opportunities for physical comedy are missed; and, save for a few specific cases, the show seems to be lacking a sense of urgency. This play feels old and lifeless.
Much of the company feels miscast and/or amateurish, as does much of the production. One actor’s multiple characters all sound exactly the same, and none have any vocal or facial expression whatsoever. However, there are some standout performances worth calling attention to: Judy McCord, as Aunt Abby Brewster, though not entirely confident in her lines, gives a believable and sweet performance and helps to ground the show; and Wayne Burtoft gets a good deal of laughs as Teddy Brewster, mainly because it is such a humorously written part, but partially due to Burtoft’s youthful and shameless energy.
Rebecca Jones certainly turns lemons into lemonade, playing “Dr. Einstein” with a delightful goofiness and wit that boldly outshines many of the weaker performances around her. (This is a unique interpretation of this character, and is a welcome change to what has become a predictable play.) And even though Jones’ German accent may not be spot-on, it almost makes the character more charming.
Abbey Collins gives the show its strongest performance overall, playing Officer O’Hara with tremendous humor and spunk, doing the show’s one and only Brooklyn accent; and, finally, Bill Segreve, as Lieutenant Rooney, feels like the show’s true professional actor onstage, performing with confidence and rhythm and creating a fully developed character.
Although each actor has at least one winning moment, only a few produce memorable work in this play. By and large, the play’s rhythms feel awkward; and the whole production feels less than polished.
Interestingly, the play’s protagonist is a theater critic; and playwright Joseph Kesselring enters metafiction territory almost immediately, taking jabs at hyper-critical theatrical reviewers and sloppy playwrights. Our protagonist, Mortimer Brewster, comments frequently on the plays that he sees that are disappointing. I hate to say that, in the cast of Forest Moon Theater’s Arsenic and Old Lace, I know how he feels.
This production is in the PG zone for scary moments and language.
The Forest Moon Theater presents ARSENIC AND OLD LACE at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 23 and 24 and 3 p.m. Sept. 25 in the Wake Forest Renaissance Centre, 405 S. Brooks St., Wake Forest, North Carolina 27587.
TICKETS: $15 in advance ($13 students 18 and under and seniors 65+) and $18 day of show ($16 students 18 and under and seniors 65+).
BOX OFFICE: http://www.etix.com/.
2016-17 SEASON: http://www.forestmoontheater.org/current-season/.
Arsenic and Old Lace (1941 Broadway black comedy): http://www.dramatists.com/cgi-bin/db/single.asp?key=1841 (Dramatists Play Service, Inc.), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-show/arsenic-and-old-lace-1692 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0036613/ (Internet Movie Database).
The Script: https://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Study Guide: http://www.bard.org/study-guides/arsenic-and-old-lace-study-guide (Utah Shakespeare Festival).
Joseph Otto Kesselring (New York City playwright, 1902-67): https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/joseph-kesselring-87414 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0450279/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Kesselring (Wikipedia).
Jason Tyne-Zimmerman (Cary, NC director and teacher at Longleaf School of the Arts in Raleigh, NC): https://www.facebook.com/tynezimmerman (Facebook page) and https://twitter.com/xquisite_corpse (Twitter page).
Dustin K. Britt is a Triangle native, holds a master’s degree in special education from East Carolina University, and teaches locally. He can be spotted all over the Triangle area either painting scenery or chewing on it. He has received local theater award nominations for doing both. He is a devoted cinephile and author of Hold the Popcorn, a movie blog on Facebook. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.