‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ Finds Humor and Horror in Civilized Society

Repertory Philippines brings out the strengths—and some weaknesses—of Joseph Kesserling’s dark comedy about a family of criminals, crazies, and critics.

by Emil Hofileña

 

Watching a farce in this day and age is a particularly interesting theatrical experience. We really aren’t expected to read too deeply into this style of broad comedy, but given the sheer absurdity of our current sociopolitical climate, it becomes difficult not to find real world parallels within even the most exaggerated scenarios. Take Repertory Philippines’s Arsenic and Old Lace, which sees theater critic Mortimer Brewster (Nelsito Gomez) making the horrifying discovery that his two elderly aunts have actually been nonchalantly murdering old men and burying them in the basement. As commentary on the sins of seemingly civilized members of society, the material still works today, though it sticks to its old fashioned roots to a fault. Still, handsome production values and an animated cast make Arsenic and Old Lace some of the most fun you can have in the theater.

 

 

Because this is a comedy that relies almost entirely on characters having funny reactions to disturbing things, none of it works without actors who can bridge the gap between laughter and horror. Thankfully, everyone on stage keeps this balance steady, and in different ways. For example, Jeremy Domingo’s Teddy Brewster (Mortimer’s delusional brother) is loud and blissfully oblivious for the entire show. Meanwhile, Joy Virata and Jay Valencia Glorioso, who play aunts Abby and Martha, respectively, are polite and scarily rational. It’s this mix of comedic styles that keeps the reveals shocking. Other highlights include Steven Conde’s Officer O’Hara, who plays just the right amount of foolish; and leading man Gomez, whose panicky moral unraveling is one of the show’s great strengths.

 

These actors are given an appropriately deceptive stage to play around in—one that mirrors the Brewsters’ family secrets. It’s a warm, tidy, inviting home whose every furnishing becomes suspicious from the moment aunts Abby and Martha admit to the first corpse. First-time director Jamie Wilson effectively plays up this paranoia, ramping up the tension whenever a character so much as approaches a “forbidden area” (like the window seat, or the entrance to the basement). And as more and more characters begin entering the picture, the set’s multiple entrances make things unpredictable. The fact that it can become difficult to keep track of where every person is at a given time is part of the fun.

 

 

However, the manic energy that Arsenic and Old Lace possesses also makes it occasionally exhausting. By wholeheartedly embracing the play’s farcical roots, Wilson also doesn’t allow some of the humor the breathing room it needs to be fully effective. It’s almost impatient in the way it delivers jokes, and while some might say that this is precisely the point, certain slapstick gags and instances of physical comedy end up losing their momentum.

 

Wilson’s reverence to the original script by Joseph Kesserling also reveals aspects to the material that don’t quite hold up with the times. Arsenic and Old Lace makes frequent references to 1930s pop culture, with more than a few snide remarks about the seemingly deplorable state of American theater at the time. It’s easy to imagine these references being far more effective 70 years ago, but hearing them now does little more than emphasize to the audience that this is, indeed, a play from the 40s. And, again, while we shouldn’t expect subtlety from a farce, it can’t help but feel like a missed opportunity that this incarnation of Kesserling’s production doesn’t necessarily bring out more of the story’s horror.

 

 

None of this really hurts Arsenic and Old Lace as a whole, though. This is a classic comedy for a reason, and there is still much to gain from viewing it today. It amplifies the dysfunctional family trope to delirious heights, depicting one’s commitment to family as a curse one cannot escape. The Brewsters’ curse is that everyone is insane in their own way—and they’re allowed to get away with it so long as they mask their despicable nature as eccentricity. As each character learns more and more about the extent of the crimes being committed in their very own home, sympathies shift and bonds are tested, often to hilarious, ingenious results. And if you’re lucky, you might just see some audience members sweat from how uncannily familiar this all seems.

 

 

Arsenic and Old Lace runs until April 29 at the Onstage Theatre, Greenbelt 1. Tickets are available at ticketworld.com.ph.