By CHUCK GRAHAM
Actors love those comedy roles that go way over the top. Playing characters so outrageous they can’t be overdone is the actor’s equivalent of going as fast as possible on the interstate. It’s dangerous, but it’s also downright thrilling.
“Arsenic and Old Lace” is one of those classic comedies that maintains its popularity, at least in the acting community, because the play is full of parts an actor can ride screaming for the horizon. Live Theatre Workshop has fired up a production that’s got everybody onstage burning with white-line fever.
Stephen Frankenfield is the high-compression hot rodder in this cast, playing the excitable Mortimer Brewster. As the angry theater critic, uncertain suitor and devoted nephew to his pair of dithering spinster aunts, Mortimer gets pulled in more directions than a bucket of saltwater taffy on the Fourth of July.
Energetic in a more madcap manner is Mortimer’s mentally deluded little brother, Teddy (Tony Eckstat). Convinced he is Teddy Roosevelt, president of the United States and a Rough Rider, Teddy keeps charging up the basement stairs, believing he is leading troops up San Juan Hill. He also does a lot of digging on the Panama Canal he says is in the basement of the Brewster family home in Brooklyn.
Abby (Peg Peterson) and Martha (Roberta Streicher) are the two aunts, the stars of the play, whose blithe views on murder are so incongruous they are shockingly funny. Fussing and fluttering over each little daily matter, they are the sort of elderly ladies who would have a specially embroidered doily ready for every occasion.
The fact that Martha has concocted a lovely blend of arsenic, cyanide and strychnine to flavor her homemade elderberry wine is proof she’s also good at chemistry. Peterson and Striecher are totally delightful and completely believable as the sisters whose malleable morality leads them to believe it is perfectly all right to help ease the path to heaven for lonely old men.
Death with dignity is a buzz phrase these days, with many supporters. Back in the early 1940s, Aunt Abby and Aunt Martha were way ahead of their time. In their own way, Abby and Martha were also proving that just because you’re older doesn’t mean you can’t be dangerous.
Truly dangerous in every sense of the word are the play’s villains, Jonathan Brewster (Richard Ivy) and Dr. Einstein (Larry Fuller). Jonathan is Mortimer’s older evil brother, the one who tortured Mortimer when he was little. Jonathan has murdered men on several continents, accompanied by the undocumented doctor – whose speciality is plastic surgery. Jonathan keeps escaping from the law because Dr. Einstein keeps giving him a new face.
Ivy is excellent as Jonathan. He projects a big stage presence that commands attention and creates terror. With all the off-kilter characters spinning around like wobbly tops, a strongly grounded and intimidating villain is essential. Ivy nails it. The play takes on a different tone once he appears. Drawing from Jack Nicholson and Humphrey Bogart, Ivy creates a low-key menace that feels even more deadly because it is so quiet.
Fuller as Dr. Einstein calls up Peter Lorre, but in a good sense, making the doctor a sympathetic character who just happened to fall in with a bad companion.
Playwright Joseph Kesselring has constructed “Arsenic and Old Lace” as a balancing act between the lovable aunts and the threatening Jonathan. One cannot exist without the other. If the balance point is lost, the play will quickly topple into caricature.
Sabian Trout is the director in charge of keeping this tiger on its stool, watching for any nervous twitch of body language that might send the dominoes toppling. She cracks the whip so we can keep on laughing.
IF YOU GO
What: Live Theatre Workshop presents “Arsenic and Old Lace” by Joseph Kesselring.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays through July 16.
Where: Live Theatre Workshop, 5317 E. Speedway Blvd.
Price: $13-$16, with discounts.
Info: 327-4242, www.livetheatre workshop.org