Producing Arsenic & Old Lace
By Joseph Kesselring
Performance length: about 2 1/2 hrs. with a 15-minute intermission.
SET DESIGN: Medium
COSTUME DESIGN: Easy
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Abby and Martha Brewster are Brooklyn’s most charitable sisters. They feed the hungry, give to the poor, devote themselves to the church, and poison lonely old men. When their nephew Mortimer, a famous theatre critic, discovers a body from their most recent act of benevolence, he becomes distraught and immediately tries to remedy the situation (this involves breaking up with his fiancée, Elaine). The sisters, without an ounce of guilt, try to calm Mortimer and inform him that the bodies (all 12 of them) are neatly buried in the cellar.
To make matters worse, the Brewsters are visited by Mortimer’s murderous brother, Jonathan, and his oafish henchman, Dr. Einstein (no, not THAT Einstein). Jonathan schemes to make the Brewster’s house the new base for his criminal activity and even attempts to blackmail the family upon discovering the bodies downstairs. Mortimer is faced with saving his family while keeping his aunts free from incarceration.
Similar to The Man Who Came to Dinner or You Can’t Take It With You, this plays boasts a large cast (11M, 3W) of outlandish characters. Many of the minor roles, such as the police officers, can be cast as women.
Beyond the two sweet sisters, who are completely naïve they are committing a heinous crime, the play also consists of their nephew Teddy, who actually believes he is Teddy Roosevelt; the hulking Jonathan, who resembles Boris Karloff; Dr. Einstein, who was perfected by Peter Lorre in the Frank Capra film adaptation; and a bumbling police officer, who aspires to be a playwright. This broad cast of characters is balanced by the relatively hard-nosed pragmatics of Mortimer and the charm and beauty of Elaine.
One of the most memorable qualities of this play is its set, which boasts several entry ways and one pivotal staircase. Described as “Victorian as the two sisters,” this set is central to the development of the story and much of the play’s comedy. The architecture of the house serves as an additional obstacle for the characters who run to and from the living room, climb up and down the stairs, and fall in and out of the large window.
Costumes should be period (1940s) garb.
There is no secret as to why this play is so widely performed. Kesselring commits a remarkable balancing act with each of these characters, giving them all time to develop and grow on stage, while structuring a plot which twists and tightens with each passing moment. Though, the script’s greatest flaw is in its resolution, where the playwright opts for cheap humor and a random cavalcade of police men to save the day (Kesselring justifies this through Teddy, whose bugle horn infuriates the neighbors). The audience, however, will probably be very forgiving here because the play provides an enjoyable story with such gratifying comedy.