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Jacque Lynn Colton, Sheelagh Cullen, and J.B. Waterman in Arsenic and Old Lace at the Odyssey Theatre. (Photo by Enci Box)
Jacque Lynn Colton, Sheelagh Cullen, and J.B. Waterman in Arsenic and Old Lace at the Odyssey Theatre. (Photo by Enci Box)

Arsenic and Old Lace

Reviewed by Vanessa Cate
Odyssey Theatre Ensemble
Through October 8

There’s something strangely delightful about two old aunties on a murder spree. Their murders couldn’t be more pleasant or altruistic, at least in their minds. In fact, Martha and Abby Brewster (Jacque Lynn Colton and Sheelagh Cullen, respectively) see nothing wrong with the arrangement: they invite lonely old men to look at a room for rent, then offer them a glass of elderberry wine laced with arsenic and other poisons.

Their nephew Mortimer (JB Waterman), however, isn’t crazy about his aunties’ lifestyle. But he’s the odd one out. His brother Teddy (Alex Elliott-Funk) lives under the delusion that he is Theodore Roosevelt, and his other brother Jonathan (Gera Hermann), wanted for murder, is a criminal on the run, who wears a reconstructed face that looks a little too much like Boris Karloff’s. So let’s just say that Mortimer, by far the sanest in the household, is on his own. His girlfriend Elaine (Liesel Kopp) might be in for the ride, but she is so focused on marriage that she remains blind to Mortimer’s plight.

Joseph Kesselring’s 1941 play was a hit on Broadway. It ran for more than 1400 performances before moving on to London, and turned into a successful Hollywood film by Frank Capra. It’s easy to see why. The writing is dynamite. Kesserling, with the help of Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, crafted a spectacular farce. The play is worth seeing for the writing alone.

The problem with this production is that a lot of energy is required from the performers, and the ensemble largely fails to deliver. Elina de Santos’ direction is sluggish and inorganic. Kudos to Michael Antosy who, though cast in the small role of Officer O’Hara, provides the vigor the play so needs. All said, the actors are able. Colton and Cullen in particular are well cast as the saccharine murderesses. The performances just need to be dialed up — especially the larger-than-life character of Teddy, whose physicality is written to engulf the stage.

Despite the low energy (for a farce), and some general clunkiness with props and staging, the performances do benefit from the visual elements of the production. Bruce Goodrich’s scenic design, Leigh Allen’s lighting, and Amanda Martin’s costumes effectively recreate the time period and do justice to the play’s aesthetic.

Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd. Los Angeles; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; Wed., Sept. 13; Thurs., Sept. 28 and Oct. 5, 8 p.m.; through October 8. Running time: Approximately 2 hour and , 20 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.