REVIEW: Meadow Brook Theatre’s ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ Concocts the Right Blend of Mayhem and Merriment for a Killer Show

Elaine Harper: Have you gone crazy?

Mortimer Brewster: No. But it’s only a matter of time.

As Michigan’s Answer to Broadway, Meadow Brook Theatre opens its 53rd season by infusing high-energy hilarity into the 80-year-old classic, Arsenic and Old Lace. And judging by the reaction of the well-heeled crowd on Thursday night, this production is in for a crazy good run.

When you mention Arsenic and Old Lace to most people, they are likely to recall the 1944 movie starring Cary Grant and Peter Lorre. But before the story received the Hollywood treatment, it lit up the Great White Way for over 1400 performances. Written by playwright Joseph Kesselring in 1939, it has become a theatre staple on amateur stages (where I was first introduced) and professional stages around the world. Meadow Brook Theatre (MBT) honors the true spirit of this play by performing it in the original format used 80 years ago. This means there are three acts and two 10-minute intermissions. Not only does this provide an excellent opportunity to stretch your legs a little more, but it also gives the play a nice pace, which means the audience is constantly engaged and never bored. Speaking of pace… buckle up because the action comes at you with deft misdirection, dynamic energy, and precision comedic timing.

L to R: Ruth Crawford, Mary Robin Roth and Thomas D. Mahard star in Arsenic and Old Lace.

Photo courtesy of Sean Carter Photography.

Set in Brooklyn, New York during 1941, the play centers around the Brewster sisters and their, ahem, unconventional hobby. And it is this juxposition that makes the play such a hoot to watch unfold. Abby and Martha Brewster see themselves as nothing more than sweet God-fearing women who offer older gentleman an escape from their loneliness. To the sisters, it’s all an act of good Christian charity. Mary Robin Roth (as Abby Brewster) and Ruth Crawford (as Martha Brewster) are deliciously delightful as the unassuming sisters who wear their charming cluelessness as a second skin, which in turn gives the other actors the opportunity to do the same. Take for instance Mortimer Brewster (Tim Dolan) who is like a marathon man running everywhere in a frenzied panic. Impressively, Dolan shows a level of physical comedy that would rival the late John Ritter. And while Mortimer is running around, his level-headed fiancée Elaine Harper (played by recent OU grad Olivia Ursu who is making her MBT debut) tries to keep from losing her sanity. Also making his MBT debut, Michael Brian Ogden cuts a sinister figure as the no-good Jonathan Brewster. In fact, he’s the only character who seems to really rattle the Brewster sisters. Of course, every menacing character needs a good sidekick and Jonathan’s comes courtesy of the drunken and disheveled Dr. Einstein played brilliantly by Phil Powers. If you enjoy the comedy of Lewis Black, you’re going to love Powers’ interpretation of Dr. Einstein. One of the truly understated humorous elements of the show is most everyone seems determined to crown Teddy Brewster (Peter Prouty) as the crazy one. While it would be easy to view Teddy’s role as minor, Peter does an excellent job of making the audience believe he might actually be the character with the most going for him. Another feather in Teddy’s hat is that he always appears at the right time, providing well-timed laughs.

Ruth Crawford and Mary Robin Roth star in ‘Arsenic and Old Lace.’

Photo courtesy of Sean Carter Photography.

Rounding out this house full of chaos are Chip Duford as the Rev. Dr. Harper (and Elaine’s father), Tobin Hissong as Officer Brophy, Mike Vultaggio as Officer Klein, Mark Rademacher as Officer O’Hara, and Thomas D. Mahard as Mr. Gibbs and Mr. Witherspoon. An interesting side note on Mahard: he originally played Dr. Einstein in MBT’s 1981 production of Arsenic and Old Lace, which was his third show. This current production is his 69th.

Technically the show is still in the preview period, which means all involved are fine-tuning different aspects. But from what I witnessed, there won’t be much need for that. The entire cast is to be applauded for their performances, along with their acute ability to read the audience’s responses to their actions onstage and milk the moment as needed. This is what live theatre is about – connection on an emotional level. Director Travis W. Walter should truly be proud of this production.

As impressive as the cast is, I would be remiss if I didn’t give a hat tip to Terry W. Carpenter (stage manager) Kristen Gribbin (scenic design), Corey Collins (costume design), Kerro Knox 3 (light design), and Mike Duncan (sound design) for all their contributions. The set is elaborately decorated with such detail. From the beautiful stained-glass windows to the ornate woodwork, it really is an impressive sight as are the costumes, lighting, and sound. The expansiveness of the space gives the actors such freedom to really make the most of their movements, giving the performance great fluidity.

Enjoy a ‘killer’ evening of high-caliber entertainment at one of the remaining performances happening now until Sunday, October 28, 2018.

Tickets range from $30 to $45 and are available by calling the Meadow Brook Theatre box office at 248-377-3300 or going online at www.Ticketmaster.com. Student discounts are available at the box office. Groups of eight or more should call 248-370-3316 for group pricing.

Arsenic and Old Lace is made possible through the generous support of The Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, The National Endowment for the Arts, The Kresge Foundation, The Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation, The Shubert Foundation, and the Meadow Brook Theatre Guild.

Meadow Brook Theatre is located on the campus of Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. For additional information, please visit www.mbtheatre.com or call 248-377-3300. Meadow Brook Theatre is a nonprofit, cultural institution serving southeast Michigan for more than 50 years.