'Arsenic' delights with funny, macabre production

'Arsenic' delights with funny, macabre production
Michal Daniel

When talking about Arsenic and Old Lace, co-star Sally Wingert notes that it's a "handsome American play." That's an apt description of Joseph Kesselring's 1941 macabre farce about murderous aunts, a Boris-Karloff look-alike madman, and a baker's dozen of bodies in the cellar.

The show gets an appropriately handsome production at the Guthrie, led by Joe Dowling's steady hand and featuring terrific turns from Wingert and Kristine Nielsen as Martha and Abby Brewster, a pair of spinster sisters who are always ready to offer a hand to charity--and to off lonely, older gentlemen. The two actors are a perfect double act, bringing out all the jolly madness of their characters, talking of murder while gently clucking over their nephew's marriage plans.

The nephew, uneasy theater critic Mortimer, spends most of the play trying to unravel the mess caused by his relatives, including long-lost brother Jonathan, who looks like the Frankenstein's monster actor. There's also another brother who thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt. He may be the sanest of them all. Jonas Goslow is probably too good looking to play a critic, but his rubbery face and expressions help to sell the increased chaos of the longest night of his life.

'Arsenic' delights with funny, macabre production
Michal Daniel

Elsewhere, Bob Davis looks like he was born to play Teddy, performing the role with all the gusto and bat-shit craziness that the character needs to stay fresh through every scream of "charge!" while rushing up the stairs or every journey down into the basement to dig another "lock" for the Panama Canal (that's where the sisters, never ones to miss opportunity when it knocks, bury the bodies).

Meanwhile Tyson Forbes and Kris L. Nelson make a perfect pair as the heavies: evil, scarred Jonathan and skittish Dr. Einstein. This is the kind of comedy where any character truly is in danger--think of all the kindly old corpses in the basement--and Forbes brings home the menace with blood-dripping delight.

Dowling and designer John Lee Beatty bring a decaying Victorian/Charles Addams vibe to it all, complete with a graveyard in the background and a pair of bodies (though not at the same time) in the bench at the tip of the thrust.

Arsenic and Old Lace runs through June 5.

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