“Insanity runs in my family. It practically gallops.” So says Frank Hughes, as Mortimer Brewster, in the Cotuit Center for the Arts production of “Arsenic and Old Lace.”
Mortimer reaches this conclusion after coming to the realization that his saintly spinster aunts, paragons of kindness and charity, have been poisoning lonely old men with homemade elderberry wine spiked with arsenic, strychnine and cyanide.
As the play opens, Mortimer arrives at his aunts’ house to pick up his sweetheart Elaine (Leeandra Booth), who lives next door, and is dismayed to discover his aunts’ latest victim, Mr. Hoskins, stashed away in the home’s window seat.
Aunt Abby (Cathy Ode) explains that she put Mr. Hoskins in the window seat because Elaine’s father, the Reverend Harper, was coming over for tea and having a corpse in the living room “wouldn’t be very nice.”
When Mortimer asks his practical aunts how the poison got into the wine, Aunt Martha (Janet Geist Moore) explains that the poison is in the wine because when they put it in tea, “it has a distinct odor.”
When not poisoning would-be lodgers, the sisters busy themselves donating toys to the policemen’s charity, making soup for shut-ins and looking after their nephew (Jim Batzer), who is convinced he’s Teddy Roosevelt and spends his days blowing a bugle, feverishly running up and down the stairs yelling “Charge!” and digging a “canal” in the basement, which he thinks is Panama. It’s a convenient delusion for the aunts, as the subsequent locks created by Teddy can be used to bury their victims, who Teddy thinks died of yellow fever.
Complication arise when Mortimer’s wayward brother Jonathan (Todd Gosselin) and his personal surgeon (Toby Wilson) arrive at Abby and Martha’s with a body of their own.
Written by Joseph Kesselring, “Arsenic and Old Lace” opened on Broadway in 1941. A film adaptation directed by Frank Capra and starring Cary Grant solidified the black comedy’s spot among early cultural pop icons.
The play includes clever dialogue and physical pratfalls, and relies on the increasing hysteria of Mortimer as he delves deeper and deeper into his aunts’ devious dealings. It’s a contrast with the demeanor of his aunts, who remain quite level-headed given the circumstances.
As the two sisters fuss with linens and dinner dishes they engage in a back-and-forth about who will lead the funeral services for Mr. Hoskins, who was a Methodist. Early on in the play they fret that Mortimer won’t be a good candidate to marry the reverend’s daughter because of his work as a theater critic. They assuage themselves by concluding that the theater “can’t last much longer.”
Dialogues such as these are what make the play so absurd. At one point a police officer arrives on the scene and, rather than being shocked to discover Mortimer tied up and gagged by his gangster brother, the officer uses Mortimer’s confinement to his advantage, launching into a detailed description of a play he’s writing.
There were some opening night missed lines among the performers, but overall everyone did an excellent job with this verbally heavy play. The pacing of the show starts off slowly and increases in the second act.
The box set, the interior of the Brewster sisters’ old home, is lavish, complete with a large staircase, an alcove leading to the basement, a dining area, front door and foyer area, and a second-floor landing that shows some of the outside facade of the home and offers a window from which characters can look out to see who’s at the front door. A Victorian wall clock, antique framed portraits, bric-a-brac, lace table cloths, crystal glasses and a decanter are among the many props that make the set feel like a home.
“Arsenic and Old Lace” continues at the Cotuit Center for the Arts through Sunday, February 16. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 PM, and Sundays at 2 PM. Tickets are available online and by calling the box office.