The Most Hospitable Murderers You’ll Ever Meet: ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’

Poster for 'Arsenic and Old Lace'. Company, title, playwright, director, date, time, location are listed.

It’s tough being a drama critic at the best of times. For Brooklyn-based theatre journalist Mortimer Brewster (Danny Lalonde), the drama is seeping into his home life at a worrying pace. 

Mortimer has just promised to marry his long-term girlfriend, Elaine (Wendy Stephen), when a chance peek into his aunts’ window seat reveals that life in the Brewster household is not all as it seems. Aunt Abby (Charlene Wehlau) and Aunt Martha (Charlene DeVries) are the kindest ladies you’ll ever meet—so kind, in fact, that when lonely gentlemen come to call, the sisters put them out of their misery with poison-laced wine. How nice! 

 Arsenic and Old Lace is a farcical black comedy written in 1939 by Joseph Kesselring. Directed by Christine Harvey and produced by Not So Amateur Amateurs, the show has a two-night run this weekend at Domino Theatre. The play features a capricious cast of oddball characters whose mishaps turn the Brewster house upside down in a wild night of family mayhem.

Douglas Connors is lively and likeable as Mortimer’s delusional brother Teddy, and Ryan Donaven brings their sadistic brother Jonathan to perfectly loathsome life. Stephen’s portrayal of Elaine is strong-willed and flirty, and I found myself wishing she were onstage more often. Lalonde’s Mortimer mugs for the audience a little more than I found appealing, but his antics earned hoots of laughter at the performance I attended. Christian Milanovic, who plays the relatively minor role of Jonathan’s plastic surgeon, Dr. Einstein, shows the strongest comedic control, injecting his one-liners with satisfying deadpan delivery. 

It is the aunties, though, who carry the show. Wehlau and DeVries play off each other beautifully and never miss a beat, embodying an innocently obtuse charm that leads to hysterical misunderstandings as the play progresses. Their insistence on niceness amid the absolutely unhinged actions they take is a hilarious send-up of politeness and stiff moral culture. I especially enjoyed Wehlau and DeVries’ vocal characterizations—the swooping “Noooo”s and lilting titters punctuate their performance with a pleasant musicality.

I entered the theatre at 7pm with fond—albeit foggy—memories of watching the movie as a child and left at 9:45pm wondering if I could dig up the playwright and ask him to make some cuts. I love a screwball comedy, but the hefty duration of this play must make it hard for even a professional cast to keep up the pace. For better or for worse, the script is distinctly of its time, with depictions of mental illness that deserve to be buried in the basement and jokes about Jonathan resembling Frankenstein’s monster that were probably funnier when Boris Karloff played the role in the 1930s and 40s. 

If you can suspend some of your 21st-century sensibilities—and if you have it in you to sit still for two and a half hours—Arsenic and Old Lace is an inviting comedy that makes for a fun night of theatre. The Brewsters’ hospitality is undeniably warm—but if you want to make it home tonight, you’d better steer clear of the elderberry wine.

Not So Amateur Amateurs present ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ from May 17 to 18, 2024, at Domino Theatre. Tickets and more details can be found here.