The famous black comedy has been performed countless times, due to its brilliant storyline and plot. A wonderful concoction of the ghoulish and the farcical, the play has left audiences enthralled everywhere. Being staged by Walnut Street Theater as part of its 205th season, this is one play you should not miss out on.
Written in 1939, the play premiered on Broadway in 1941. The timing was important, because there was a constant fear in the US that it would be pulled into the Great War in Europe. People needed a distraction and it came in the form of Arsenic and Old Lace. Opening on January 10, 1941, the play provided hilarious entertainment for the audience members, who thronged in great numbers to see it.
The play premiered at the Helen Hayes Theater (then called the Fulton Theater) and later shifted to the Hudson Theater. Directed by Bretaigne Windust, the play was an immediate commercial and critical success, running for a staggering 1,444 performances. It finally closed on Broadway on June 17, 1944.
The play also had a successful run at London’s West End in 1942, where once again, the war stricken public came to watch the comedy in great numbers. Arsenic and Old Lace gained worldwide fame after a film version, directed by Frank Capra, and starring Cary Grant, was released and became a massive box office hit.
The play revolves around two elderly sisters, Abby and Martha Brewster, who are known throughout their Brooklyn neighborhood as being extremely charitable and kind. But it turns out that part of their charity includes poisoning lonely old men to relieve them of their loneliness. The charming ladies invite their victims in for a glass of home-made wine and lace it with arsenic, strychnine and cyanide. Their accomplice in the act is their mentally challenged nephew Teddy Brewster, who believes he is actually Theodore Roosevelt. Teddy frequently blasts a trumpet and yells “charge” as he charges up and down the stairs.
Matters get complicated when drama critic Mortimer Brewster appears. The only “sane” man in the family, he is engaged to the lovely Elaine Harper, but constantly worries whether she will not fit in with his unusual family. Things really start going downhill when Mortimer discovers the murders and a third nephew appears; one who has just escaped from a mental institution.
The play is a black comedy, a clever and wonderful mixture of the macabre and farcical. Kesselring uses the play to satirize the charitable impulses people sometimes have, and pokes fun at conventional theater at the same time. The play also deals with the topic of euthanasia, which even today is a sensitive manner. But that is the best thing about this script; amongst the adroit mixture of mayhem and comedy, there are themes which do make one think long and hard.
One of the all time great comedy plays, Arsenic and Old Lace, should definitely not be missed by any theater lover.