One wonders what Mortimer Brewster might make of the latest London revival of “Arsenic and Old Lace,” given that Joseph Kesselring’s none-too-stalwart American comedy has a drama critic as its hero. It’s not just the notion that dramatic criticism was once upon a time so notable a profession — even if, as a refugee from the real estate pages, Mortimer rather tellingly hates the theater — that dates this 1941 play today, despite references to “war trouble” that give “Arsenic” an unanticipated timeliness. The sort of three-act play that the American theater has all but thrown out (this revival does it in two, with a pause between the second and third acts), “Arsenic” nowadays makes for pretty heavy going, and Matthew Francis’ shrill, broad production doesn’t ease the way. The staging will need to depend on the considerable marquee value of its quartet of stars (“Seinfeld’s” Michael Richards included), each with his or her own separate constituency, if it is to avoid classification as an exhumed corpse.
Kesselring’s play had an astonishingly long first Broadway run (1,444 perfs) and did almost as well in its subsequent West End preem at the Strand, which it is occupying once again. But visited anew six decades later, the play is all too obviously in the Kaufman & Hart school of studied eccentricity without the charm that can give a roughly contemporaneous work such as “You Can’t Take It With You” such a charge.
Would a quieter staging have worked better? (In his New York Times review of the original, critic Brooks Atkinson wrote revealingly that it was the production’s “casual point of view that is so robustly entertaining.”) Perhaps, especially with a more appropriate actor than the talented if entirely miscast Stephen Tompkinson in the crucial role of Mortimer. And yet, first-rate though Marcia Warren and Thelma Barlow both are as the innocently scheming spinsters, and even with the long-limbed Richards in weirdly compelling tow, the play just doesn’t wash: Yesteryear’s historic run is today’s old hat.
Everyone probably knows the story: Mortimer finds himself the disintegrating calm at the center of a gathering Brooklyn storm. For one thing, the spinster aunties gently clucking about their business are in fact practiced mistresses of the art of euthanasia, with a mounting body count in the cellar at which they barely bat an eye. (As they explain away their penchant for arsenic, cyanide and the like, the old dears are merely leading lonely old men to an early respite.) Nor are their peccadilloes the half of it. Barreling up and down the staircase shouting “bully” is nutcase Teddy (Rupert Vansittart, saddled with a one-joke role), the bugle-blowing uncle who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt.
As if that weren’t enough, well into the first act arrives the prodigal nephew, Richards’ white-faced Jonathan, a much-wanted murderer and Boris Karloff lookalike. (In the play’s first stage outing, Karloff himself took the part.) Amid such company, what chance is there of normalcy? Pretty slim in a blackly comic farce that voices its own affinity to Pirandello: Mortimer, you’ll gather, isn’t a theater critic for nothing. (The play he is on his way to cover this particular evening is called, wait for it, “Murder Will Out.”)
Insanity, Mortimer concedes, “practically gallops” in the family, much to the distress of his fiancee, the neighboring Elaine (Hattie Morahan), about whom Kesselring evidently couldn’t care less. In the cockeyed world of “Arsenic and Old Lace,” to play straight woman (or man) is to be left out of the larcenous spirit of a kind of comedy that may once have seemed bravely cavalier in its rudeness: There’s even the hint that the aunts are getting some kind of erotic kick out of the accumulation of dead bodies. But in attempting to review his own play for us (Mortimer asks us to think of the material as if “Strindberg had written ‘Hellzapoppin’ “), “Arsenic’s” authorial surrogate plays way too obvious a hand. These cards are no longer the cut-ups Kesselring would have them be.
One has to applaud West End first-timer Richards’ limbs, which are frequently more agile than the play. (He’s particularly deft sliding down designer Stephen Brimson Lewis’ impressive staircase.) Barlow and Warren bring a gentle brio to their double-act as the death-obsessed biddies, with Barlow scoring the night’s first genuine laugh — on the straightforward remark, “Yes dear, we know” — a good half-hour in. After that, the news is pretty sad, though John Guerrasio shows gumption as a policeman who really would rather be a playwright.
A bug-eyed Tompkinson seems visibly to be straining to fill Cary Grant’s screen role (his timing seems off and his American accent, too), and you have to ask whether those in the aud who don’t share Mortimer’s profession will find a lot to smile about. Myself, I immediately warmed to Mortimer’s admission amid the spiraling chaos that he could save time if he wrote his review “on the way to the theater.” Ain’t that the truth.