Theatre Review: “Arsenic & Old Lace” at Beef and Boards

On the last Friday night in 2012 I drove to the Beef and Boards Dinner Theatre on the north side of Indianapolis to see the opening night performance of “Arsenic & Old Lace,” by Joseph Kesselring.  It was my first time to see this classic show and my first time as a VIP member at B&B.  This is also the first show in B&B’s 40th season. (40 years!  Congratulations, B&B!  Here’s to 40 more!)

I had heard of this play before, of course – I think we read it aloud in English class when I was in high school – but I had missed other opportunities to see it produced in the five years that I’ve been writing this theatre blog. 

Now that B&B’s delightful production, directed by J. R. Stewart, has set the bar for me, I’ll try harder to see it wherever it is on stage.  I will also look for the film that made it famous – the 1941 Frank Capra film starring Cary Grant – at my local public library. What a darkly comic romp!

The Brewsters At Home In Brooklyn

The casting in this particular production is lovely across the board, with performances that are consistently strong and believable:

Two sweet little old ladies – Martha and Abby Brewster, played with prim and charming wit by Gerri Weagraff and Karen Pappas, respectively – take in single male boarders that seem to be unhappy with their lives.  Then the ladies poison the men to see “that peaceful look” on their faces!  (I am laughing again, remembering those two dears’ explanation of why they do what they do.)

Their nephew Teddy Brewster – played with joyful athleticism and commitment (or should I say “commitment-worthiness”? Hah!) by Douglas E. Stark – thinks he is Teddy Roosevelt.  Whenever his aunts tell him there is another “yellow fever victim,” he buries the corpse in the “Panama Canal” in the basement!  Whenever he runs upstairs, he blows his bugle to sound the charge!

Their second nephew Mortimer Brewster is a reluctant theatre critic who would rather be working on his book about Thoreau.  He proposes marriage to the local minister’s beautiful daughter, Elaine Harper (Lisa Ermel), just before he learns about what his elderly aunts have been up to. David Schmittou’s portrayal of Mortimer’s increasing panic is relatable and funny, and Lisa Ermel packs a wallop of glamorous, intelligent, and loving presence into her supporting role.

The show really heats up, though, when the third nephew appears.  Jeff Stockberger is terrifying as Jonathan Brewster, a tight-faced, heavily scarred serial killer on the run with his surgeon buddy, Dr. Einstein.  Eddie Curry gives Dr. Einstein a sloshed Igor-esque quality that is equally terrifying in its wimpy-jolly amorality.

Four other actors admirably portray a variety of “good guys” that troop in and out of the house.  They are mostly oblivious to what is going on and therefore add to the hilarity.  Adam Crowe plays both Elaine’s father, the Rev. Dr. Harper, and a seasoned policeman: Lieutenant Rooney.  Josh Stark plays young Officer Brophy.  Jim Habegger plays local sanatorium manager Mr. Witherspoon.  Darrin Murrell plays Officer O’Hara – a would-be playwright who is exasperatingly clueless in a funny way on many levels.

The Appeal of “Arsenic & Old Lace”

I think this play has become a classic (i.e., beloved over time and done again and again) for several reasons.  For one thing, it is funny but it is also creepy.  Mixing genres is often enjoyable if done well.  Comedy and horror/suspense are mixed well in this piece.

Also, we have probably all felt at one time or another that our tribe has “hatched a cuckoo,” as Mortimer puts it.  We have probably all suspected at least once or twice that some of the people closest to us – our family members, our co-workers, our roommates, etc. – are crazy.  This show amplifies that suspicion without being earnest or psychological about it.  WHY are they crazy?  Who cares!  They just are.  And God help us, because according to this play, they may not just be quaintly crazy, they may also be maliciously crazy.  Yikes!  But our people would never be as crazy as any of these people, would they?  No, of course not.  Whew! 

It is a tiny spoiler to tell you that Mortimer is relieved at the end to find out that he is not actually related to these crazy people after all, but I mention it because I loved that he thought his lack of blood ties meant he was guaranteed to be unaffected by the fact that he had grown up in this house with this people.  I think he is crazy to think that, and I am laughing again, remembering that moment in the play.

Another reason this play has become a classic is because the supporting characters are drawn with only a few words, but they are words that allow good actors to flesh them out for our delight.  For example, Mortimer and Elaine’s relationship is not the focus of the play, but we get hints that they will have challenges as a couple because he hates going to the theatre and she loves that he takes her there.  However, at the end of the play, when things are at their most chaotic, she says she will stick by him no matter what and he looks at her in grateful acceptance.  It is a moment that is so fast as to be overlooked by the others but it is meaningful to her and to Mortimer, so we also believe that they might make it as a couple.  That hope is appealing.

I also loved that the playwright used this play to express his frustration with people that think writing good plays is easy or that writing theatre commentary is an undesirable, unimportant job.  The playwright communicates these two messages clearly and with good humor, and yet doesn’t let either of them get in the way of the story, which made them all the more satisfying to me as a writer in the audience.

A Couple More Thoughts on B&B’s Production, Plus Box Office

If my iPhone had had a flash, I would have taken a photo of the old-timey phone, fringed silk lamp, and other delightful set dressing that I was inches away from while standing in line for the buffet.  Since my “old” phone is flashless, I will just say that I was delighted with Michael Layton’s compact yet rich set design.

I also admired Jill Kelly’s costume design.  Elaine’s satin-and-furs theatre-going outfit and the aunts’ black bombazine funeral gear impressed me in the moments they appeared, but I also loved that Teddy has a whole wardrobe of outfits, one for each of his “presidential” activities.  I didn’t fully appreciate this until later in the play, after I had seen several of them.  How fun!

“Arsenic & Old Lace” runs most Tuesdays-Sundays through February 3, 2013 at the Beef and Boards Dinner Theatre.  To see the exact show schedule, visit their website: www.beefandboards.com.  To make a reservation, call their Box Office at 317-872-9664 between 10am and 7pm Tuesday through Sunday or between 10am and 5pm on Mondays. 

I think there is still time to purchase a VIP membership for 2013 as well.

Why the VIP membership

If you’re a regular reader of Indy Theatre Habit, you know that I stopped accepting media passes in 2012.  My ego likes it when people think of me as “media” and want to give me tickets but my inner wolf prefers the freedom that comes with paying my own way.  More about that in another post, maybe.

Anyway, to save money I decided to try a Beef and Boards’ VIP membership for their 2013 season.

It was more complicated than buying my car – they give you a lot of options! – and it took me a while to fully understand what I had gotten myself into.  Actually, I am still learning about all of the rules and exceptions and perks, but at this point, I’m pleased.

Basically, you pay some money up front in order to get two tickets for the price of one throughout the year.  You can say what your preferred seats are, and your preferred nights.  B&B will give you a print-out of your reservations for the year and how much you owe for each show (based on your seats and night) and when that remainder is due (two weeks before the performance.)  When I received my print-out I put all of the dates into my iPhone calendar and set “alerts” to remind me.  I realized at that moment, though, that I had to change two of my dates.  You’re allowed to change your mind once for each show at no charge.  If you change your mind more than once for a show, you have to pay an extra $10. 

If you know that you and a friend are definitely going to go to all of the B&B shows, you will definitely save money with a VIP membership. 

You will also save money if you like to invite a different friend every time.  It’s also a great deal to buy two or more VIP memberships if your whole family likes to go, or if you and your significant other like to go to B&B shows with another couple, and so on.

If you go to a lot of shows solo, as I do because sometimes I prefer it that way, you won’t save money but you will guarantee yourself some privacy and elbow room without having to have a long discussion about it at the box office or with other theatre-goers every time.

And why not help keep a 40-year-old treasure like the Beef and Boards Dinner Theatre in business? 

A Diamond Now and In the Future

I did accept a media kit for “Arsenic & Old Lace” because I wanted great photos for my blog and I couldn’t get them any other way.  However, I was also interested to read the kit’s info about the theatre’s history.  When Beef and Boards opened on March 3, 1973, “there were between 120 and 140 similar theatres throughout the country: professional, Equity houses offering entertainment year-round.  Today, that number has dwindled to a sparse seven, making the Indianapolis venue a rare and enduring gem.” 

I loved reading Patricia Rettig’s whole media release about the theatre’s history and thoughtful, experienced-based, current strategy.  If she eventually posts this piece of writing under the media tab on the B&B website, I will link to it so you can read it, too.

In the meantime, my inner Curiosity Girl wonders about a succession plan for the theatre, for when owner/manager Douglas E. Stark and his long-time helpers retire.  I am NOT saying that should happen any time soon and, paradoxically, I know that nothing lasts forever and that “life is change.”  I also know that the theatre’s management is really none of my business.  I’m just saying that my 6-year-old godson and 4-year-old goddaughter took me to a kids show at B&B for the first time last month.  I can’t help hoping that they will be able to enjoy B&B shows for decades to come.

The media release about the theatre’s history does mention that the owner’s three adult children are currently involved with running the theatre, which is excellent.  Good luck to them and to everyone involved!

And in any case, congratulations again to Beef and Boards Dinner Theatre on 40 years of success!

Here is a great photo of owner/manager Douglas E. Stark inside Beef and Boards:

All photos here were taken by Julie Curry and are used with permission.  Roll your mouse over each photo to see the actors’ names.  (I know, I know: Indy Theatre Habit should also be mobile friendly.  Maybe in 2013.)

‘See you at the theatres…

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com and @IndyTheatre on Twitter.

©2013 Hope Baugh

2 thoughts on “Theatre Review: “Arsenic & Old Lace” at Beef and Boards”

  1. So glad you had a good time, Hope. As I am sure I have mentioned before, it is a Terrific place to work and those local actors that get the chance consider themselves very lucky! I join you in wishing them another 40 years!!

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