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Arsenic Good Recipe for Comedy

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What better choice for the Star Bar Players to kick off their retrospective season, celebrating 30 years of theater, than an uproarious production of Joseph Kesselring's Arsenic and Old Lace? The script itself is celebrating an anniversary of its own -- it was first produced January 1941, exactly 60 years ago. Although a smidgen of the cultural references are outdated, the comedic bulk of this ingenious murder mystery is timeless.

They say of all the dramatic genres, comedy is the most difficult. It takes a certain magical recipe of timing, delivery and chemistry to pull off every joke. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. What must be so delectable about this script for an actor is that it's so chock-full of comedic opportunities; if one joke misses its mark, there's another one just around the corner.

But no matter how ingenious, no script is foolproof. Luckily, the cast of this production makes more hits than misses in a continual barrage of laughter. The audience was rolling nearly all the way through Act II on Friday's opening night of the performance.

The play takes place in the Brewster residence, the home of the town's two most hospitable old women: Abby and Martha. Their generosities abound, providing good meals, good drink and even eternal rest for their lonely lodgers. It seems they've taken up a bad habit of poisoning the lonely gentlemen for whom they feel sorry. The bodies are buried in the basement by Teddy, the deranged live-in nephew, who believes he's Teddy Roosevelt.

The sisters are visited by their sane nephew, Mortimer, who stumbles upon their maniacal mercy killings by accident. His attempts to save his aunts from the law are complicated when the evil third nephew, Jonathan, and his sidekick, Dr. Einstein, return to use the place as a hideout from the cops.

All in all, the cast is fairly strong. Perhaps most noteworthy is Julian Bucknall as the nefarious Jonathan. The role, originally written for Boris Karloff, demands a very strong stage presence, which Bucknall delivers with an unforgettable entrance.

He appears as a black silhouette at the door of the darkened Brewster home. He strolls in, transforming the once riotous comedic air into a cloud of foreboding doom. When the lights go up, the deepened lines of his brow sever the room as he delivers a penetrating gaze. Bucknall maintains the heaviness of character with a deep, resonant voice which he uses to lather each syllable of script. I especially got a kick out of his fastidious pronunciation of "laboratory."

But what could an actor do to produce Jonathan's serious mood without the contrasting chemistry provided by his sidekick, the wacky Dr. Einstein (played by Greg Smith)? Smith must have had fun inventing the little quirks of the Doctor. With his gangly, wiry frame, he lurches behind Jonathan, or rather "Chonny," in an awkward gait, rubbing his head in indecision. He, like Bucknall, uses his voice to produce the most fanfare -- a raspy German accent reminiscent of Igor, Frankenstein's assistant.

Mortimer, played by Ricardo Vila-Roger, a shrimp in comparison to Bucknall's hefty frame, surprisingly holds his own against his threatening brother. Vila-Roger lends the character, played by Cary Grant in the 1944 film version of the play, a similar Cary Grant-esce hyper frustration.

I was slightly disappointed in one of the two sisters, Martha (played by Marge Gentry), who didn't seem to be completely present in her role and therefore failed to produce dramatic force equal to the other principal characters. Unfortunately, performances in some of the smaller roles weren't very convincing either, but their weaknesses didn't interfere with the flow of laughter.

If you're up for an evening of classic entertainment, Arsenic and Old Lace may be just the fix. Just don't be tempted to try the sisters' elderberry wine.

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