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Wednesday, October 19,2011

Pure poison

‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ proves comedy doesn’t always improve with age

by Tom Helma

There is a world of difference between a phoenix rising
out of the ashes and a squawky old buzzard of a script from 1939 being
dug up and delivered dead on arrival.


 “Arsenic
and Old Lace”, written 72 years ago, received a New York Times review
at the time that said, “It was so funny that none of us will ever
forget it.”


That was then: this is now.


This week’s resurrected rendition of the
American chestnut, performed by the Lansing Civic Players, is so
unfunny you’ll want to forget it immediately. 


Playwright Joseph Kesserling puts
theater critic Mortimer Brewster at the heart of “Arsenic,” an island
of rationality in an ocean of insanity. Adam Bright plays him with a
consistently effective calmness, while most of the other characters are
exaggerated nutcases. 


Eight senior citizens seated in the
second row snickered, snorted and sometimes snored as several actors
stumbled, stuttered and sputtered their way through lines not yet
perfectly learned.


The rest of us struggled to stay awake. 


Carol Ray as the younger spinster
sister, Abby Brewster, perfects the art of talking in a monotone
throughout her performance, leaving it up entirely to Jane Zussman, as
her creepy and creaky counterpart, Martha, to be hammier than thou,
shamelessly prancing her way across the stage with mincing little
movements reminiscent of an aged Bette Midler. Tee hee. 


The notion that these two sisters are
just innocently insane, poisoning other elderly guests in their home to
help them attain their heavenly rewards is a stretch.


When one adds into the mix that the
sisters have an equally insane nephew who imagines he is Teddy
Roosevelt, the plot becomes perilously thin.


Tom Dewitt is Teddy, and his multiple
deliveries of the single line — “Charge!” — to signify the advance up
an imaginary San Juan Hill, must have been specifically designed to
wake up a flagging audience: funny once, not five times.


Add a subplot about yet another
serial-killer nephew who, thanks to plastic surgery, looks like Boris
Karloff, and one begins to think that maybe this play is meant to be a
metaphor, i.e. the theater critic nephew’s worst performance nightmare
being projected out to the audience. 


Director Brittney Benjamin has her hands
full (and tied behind her back) with this production. Kenneth Branaugh
couldn’t have brought it back from the dead.


Few of us are nostalgic for endlessly revisiting the outdated theater forms of our grandparents’ generation.


The world has moved on.


 If Lansing Civic Players wants to reincarnate, maybe it might consider something a bit newer — say, from this century.


‘Arsenic and Old Lace’


Lansing Civic Players


Through Oct. 23


Hannah Community Center,  819 Abbot Road,


East Lansing


8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 23 


$14 adults; $8 students and seniors


(888) 419-5458


www.lansingcivicplayers.org

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