Just a Pinch of Cyanide

by Peter Farrugia

Photo by Jacob Sammut

Premiering on Broadway in 1941, Arsenic and Old Lace is finally playing to a Maltese audience at the Manoel Theatre under the direction of Josette Ciappara. With whimsical touches, she’s managed to find a balance between expectations brought on by the popular film (starring Cary Grant and Boris Karloff) and some zany innovations of her own.
The story centers on two sisters, Martha and Abigail Brewster (Marylu Coppini and Polly March), who have found a calling to “release” old men from lonely and solitary lives by offering them lodgings, and then disposing of the poor souls with a glass of arsenic-laced elderberry wine.

They live with their muddled nephew Teddy (played by a boisterous Colin Fitz), who’s convinced that he’s Theodore Roosevelt – and is propped up in the delusion by his relatives and neighbours. Fitz attacked the role with gusto, perhaps playing it so close to the film version that it came across a little too much like the reflection of a reflection – a cardboard character that, in a cardboard world of wacky strangeness, didn’t so much seem out of place as a little lacklustre.
The aunt’s favourite nephew is Mortimer (Edward Mercieca), a dandy theater critic and the only “sane” member of the Brewster clan (though you’d be forgiven for thinking he’s as nuts as the rest of them). Edward Mercieca, as usual, turns in a creditable performance although his energy is likely to wear an audience down with all his bounding and bellowing.

To offset this, March and Coppini’s able turn as the two gentle poisoners is required to keep the show on an even keel. They’re delightful in their roles and sit at the heart of the performance.
The third nephew, evil Jonathan, was played to good effect by Joe Depasquale. His tittering, neurotic psychopath routine actually brought something new to the role. It wasn’t Karloff’s detached, authoritarian evil but something altogether more strange. Depasquale made the character a twisted sort of schoolboy, combining charm and menace to good effect. It was certainly the most original characterization in the show.
Mortimer is engaged to marry Elaine Harper (Kate de Cesare) the beautiful daughter of a prissy old reverend (well played by Chris Hudson, it’s a shame he wasn’t in it for longer). De Cesare spent most of the play fretting about the stage, wringing her hands and shrieking – she did all of that very well, and was funniest when confronted by the wicked Jonathan. However the chemistry between Mortimer and his fiancee never really gelled, and (as the romantic fulcrum of the story) that presented a few problems.
When Jonathan gate-crashes the Brewster home, in desperate need of a hide out, he’s accompanied by his trusty plastic surgeon Dr Einstein (Renato Dimech, who did an excellent job of it) – the two actors worked together seamlessly and their antics on stage were amongst the funniest. It’s interesting to note that the play contained a lot of its best moments when parallel characters were on stage – the Brewster spinsters, Jonathan and his doctor, the film critic (Mercieca) and an aspiring playwright (Colin Willis as Officer O’Hara).
There were several other policemen, whose attempts at American accents were by turns hilarious and cringe-worthy – Steve Hili pulled it off with some aplomb, and the kind of “you dirty rat” diction that would make James Cagney blush.
MADC have pulled off a tight and funny performance, with able actors and a darkly funny script. Perhaps a lot of the Roosevelt gags fall flat, the buttoned- Victorian aunts are a parody of themselves, the world has changed and Arsenic and Old Lace is an artifact, with laughs at the period’s mores as much as the black comedy.

Still, audiences can be sure of an entertaining night out, revisiting a film many of us remember as one of Hollywood’s kookiest productions. Enjoy!

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