Arsenic and Old Lace

This classic American comedy plays murder for escapist fun, which Different Stages delivers capably

Sisters of mercy?: (l-r) Karen Jambon (Martha), Tyler Jones (Mortimer), and Jennifer Underwood (Abby)
Sisters of mercy?: (l-r) Karen Jambon (Martha), Tyler Jones (Mortimer), and Jennifer Underwood (Abby) (Courtesy of Bret Brookshire)

Arsenic and Old Lace

The Vortex, 2307 Manor Rd., 512/478-5282
Through Dec. 14
Running time: 3 hr.

Murder, mayhem, and mystery: It's fun even when it's not graphic. That could be the tagline for Different Stages' production of Joseph Kesselring's 1941 play Arsenic and Old Lace. The well-known comedy features dead bodies, poison, and torture with a cast of actors who relish the fun to be had.

The plot features the two elderly, unmarried Brewster sisters, Abby (Jennifer Underwood) and Martha (Karen Jambon), who fill their days with charitable deeds and dote on their bachelor nephew, Mortimer (Tyler Jones). All seems ordinary, until the day Mortimer happens to look in his aunts' window seat and notices a dead body. The sisters cheerfully cop to the crime. They've taken to poisoning single, older gentlemen who live alone without family or friends, the idea being that they're acting out of mercy.

Insanity runs in the Brewster family, it seems. Among a host of crazy relatives, Mortimer's brother Teddy (Joe Hartman) is convinced that he is Theodore Roosevelt, supervising the digging of the Panama Canal. Mortimer's other brother Jonathan (Steven Fay) is a homicidal maniac as well, albeit with a crueler streak than his aunts. With the discovery of a dozen dead men in the basement, Mortimer informs his sweet fiancée Elaine (Sarah Danko) that the wedding is off. She must not link herself with such crazed stock.

The play earns its laughs with a touch of slapstick and a lot of innocent silliness. Abby and Martha may be murderesses, but they're more concerned about the influence of Mortimer's profession on his character: He is a theatre critic and sees the most questionable plays. Yet they are otherwise so reluctant to pass judgment on anyone that Abby remarks early on, "I've almost come to the conclusion that this Mr. Hitler isn't a Christian."

And if surface-level comedy isn't your thing, then entertain yourself with tracing the themes of death and morbidity throughout the play. Arsenic premiered at a time in American history when many terrible events loomed on the horizon, and while audiences were grateful for a night of escapism, even this lighthearted play holds undercurrents of gravity.

Different Stages has recruited a solid cast. As Mortimer, Jones carries much of the play ably and with good comic timing. Underwood and Jambon play the Brewster sisters with delight at the characters' absurdity. Norman Blumensaadt's direction is likewise solid, although a few transitions become awkward, like the candles that won't light or the occasional dead space that goes unfilled.

One could wish for a little extra padding to the company's budget to allow for a better rendition of the corpses. Blood and gore isn't necessary, but something more human-looking would help.

The idea behind Arsenic has always been one of escapist fun, however, and in this vein, Different Stages delivers capably.

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Arsenic and Old Lace, Austin theatre, Different Stages, Norman Blumensaadt, Tyler Jones, Karen Jambon, Jennifer Underwood, Sarah Danko, Steven Fay, Joe Hartman

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