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Stage Reviews : A Faithful Rendition Of 'Arsenic'

June 27, 1986|CATHY DE MAYO

"Arsenic and Old Lace" has been resurrected in a gloriously silly revival at the Harlequin Dinner Playhouse. It's a production that starts off with one foot in reality, then slips into full-speed farce and never looks back as it speeds on its unsubtle, unstable way. Director Richard Vath has staged a version rich in character comedy and reverently faithful to the outrageous tone of Joseph Kesselring's 1941 spoof.

The Brewster family hasn't mellowed a bit over the years: There are still the eccentric Abby and Martha, dedicated to putting lonely old men out of their misery and then burying them in the cellar; their brother Teddy, who thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt; their demented nephew Jonathan, on the lam from assorted murder raps, and Jonathan's sniveling sidekick, Dr. Einstein. The one sane cog in this collection of loose screws is their youngest nephew, Mortimer, a drama critic who is blissfully courting the local minister's daughter until he discovers his aunts' little "hobby."

The Harlequin cast is anchored by Cameron Smith as Mortimer, the cocky writer who talks in adjectives. Smith's broad reactions to the insanity sprouting around him immediately establish the tone of what lies ahead. (As he notes despairingly: "Insanity runs in my family; it practically gallops.") Smith does some fine work as the straight man, alternately bewildered, frantic and floored in astonishingly swift turns.

Mortimer's two lethal aunts are appropriately lovable and refreshingly low-key. Norma Michaels adopts a nonplussed, nicely naturalistic approach to Abby that renders this batty little old lady entirely credible. And Lyla Graham endows the fussbudget Martha with an appealing warmth.

In fact, the Brewster household is filled with neat comic turns. Dallas Alinder gives Teddy a wacky dignity; Louis J. Dezseran is wonderfully sinister as the evil Jonathan, effectively employing his wild eyes and lurching movements, and Lloyd Gordon offers an eminently credible Peter Lorre imitation as the slimy Dr. Einstein. As two outsiders who stumble into the chaos, Joseph Cardinale nicely fleshes out the affable Irish cop and Elizabeth Swackhamer offers a sane counterpoint to the zany proceedings as the minister's daughter, exhibiting a broad streak of caring.

"Arsenic and Old Lace" will play through Aug. 24 at the Harlequin Dinner Playhouse, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana. For information, call (714) 979-5511.

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