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REVIEW : A 50-Year-Old Farce Seems to Await Laughs

April 22, 1993|RAY LOYND | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Arsenic and Old Lace," that hoary chestnut but still ripe American comedy, has been so done to death on campus and community theater circuits that now it is rare to find a professional production of playwright James Kesselring's classic.

But the Basement Theatre in Pasadena, kicking off its second year as an Actors Equity 99-seat venue, has revived this dotty, black farce that premiered on Broadway more than 50 years ago and remains one of the choice screen comedies to hail from the 1940s (directed by Frank Capra and starring Cary Grant).

We bring up that movie (Warner Bros./1944) because it was wisely directed at breakneck speed, all the better to blaze past the obstacles associated with an unconventional comedy of two endearing, batty sisters who poison old men with elderberry wine and bury them in the basement.

Outside of "Sweeney Todd," seldom has the theater made such mirth of dead bodies.

The Basement Theatre (certainly an apt subterranean cellar of the mind for this play) doesn't miss any of the physical and verbal gags. But director Jan O'Connor is more faithful to the play's original bulk and length than to its fanciful, airy spirit.

Her version runs on too long, dissipating the comic tension, almost pausing at times as if waiting for laughs to come back to the stage from the house, particularly in the case of Jonathan Kraft's over-the-top, excessively made up Boris Karloff-inspired murdering nephew.

On the other hand, his bug-like sidekick (the mischievous Jeffrey Asch) slyly suggests Peter Lorre in the old movie.

There's some delicately staged, funny stuff involving a couple of cadavers in a window seat, and a central stairway in the Victorian manse (set design by Eric Germansky) is well exploited.

And in an original musical brush stroke, composer Dan Scoville punctuates the zaniness with on-stage piano accompaniment.

This is not a comedy you can camp up, and most of the actors perform it straight enough--but not at the pell-mell pace required to make all the machinery really fly.

As the central and singularly sane brother Mortimer Brewster ("Insanity runs in my family. It practically gallops."), David Hunt Stafford is a bit too Elmer Fuddish.

Those who play it the most straight, and most '40s period-flavored, come off best, notably in such innocent (i.e., difficult) roles as the frustrated romantic girl-next-door (Cara Murdoch Barker) and the cop and fledgling playwright who drives the characters crazy by acting out a play he's written about a dysfunctional family (Kevin Gardner).

The daffy, notorious Brewster sisters who help aging, lonely men to their destinies (an act they call "charity") are lovably played by Bette Rae and Patricia Fair.

Their childlike bull-moose of a brother Teddy (who believes he's Teddy Roosevelt burying yellow fever victims in the Panama Canal) is raucously, if a decibel too loudly, rendered by George Klein in one of dramatic comedy's can't-miss parts.

* 'ARSENIC AND OLD LACE'

Basement Theatre, 464 E. Walnut St., Pasadena, Friday-Saturday, 8 p.m., Sunday matinees, April 25, May 2 and 16, 2 p.m. Ends May 22. $10-$12. (818) 397-1651. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

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