Sounding out a favorite farce

Resident Ensemble Players presents Joseph Kesselring’s ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’

3 minute read
Director Steve Tague (bottom row, middle) and members of the REP company perform an audio version of ‘Arsenic and Old Lace.’ (Image Courtesy of Resident Ensemble Players.)
Director Steve Tague (bottom row, middle) and members of the REP company perform an audio version of ‘Arsenic and Old Lace.’ (Image Courtesy of Resident Ensemble Players.)

Newark’s Resident Ensemble Players is midway through its season of five audio dramas. Four of these offerings are newly developed for your ears by the company—two already presented and two more to come—but for its midpoint production, REP has recorded a spirited rendition of an existing radio adaptation of Arsenic and Old Lace.

Sweet murderous mayhem

This dramatic staple begins as Mortimer Brewster (Mic Matarrese), a reluctant New York drama critic who hates going to the theater and often writes his reviews before he’s seen the play, discovers a dastardly family secret. His ostensibly sweet but totally mad elderly aunts, Martha (Kathleen Pirkl Tague) and Abby (Elizabeth Heflin), are in the habit of murdering elderly men who come to their Brooklyn Victorian boarding house, and a dozen of them are buried in the basement.

The cast includes Mortimer’s two equally addled brothers: deluded Teddy (Lee E. Ernst), who digs the graves thinking himself a Roosevelt building the Panama Canal, and homicidal maniac Jonathan (Stephen Pelinski), who’s hiding out from his latest crime spree accompanied by his crony Dr. Einstein (Michael Gotch). As visitors including clergy, police, and Jonathan’s fiancée Elaine (Heflin again) come to the house for various innocent reasons, the convoluted plot revolves around Mortimer’s frantic efforts to resolve this nefarious family dilemma and cover up these multiple crimes.

A most beloved farce

Though he wrote a dozen plays, American playwright Joseph Kesselring (1902-1967) is best-known for this one, dubbed “America’s most beloved farce.” It premiered on Broadway in 1939, where it ran for 1,444 performances—only six other plays have had longer runs. It also played 1,337 performances in London, was a hit Frank Capra movie starring Cary Grant, and has been a worldwide theater staple (professional and amateur) for all of its 82 years.

REP presents Arsenic and Old Lace in a radio adaptation by Emmy-winner Ernest Kinoy (1925-2014), who started out writing 1950s NBC radio and television dramas and worked steadily in film and TV all his life. This version aired in 1952, and REP’s iteration of his madcap script is directed by Steve Tague, who also provides the smooth midcentury narration. This production includes the entire REP company, whose actors are, as always, excellent. Ryan Touhey has written lots of spiffy original music, and Eileen Smitheimer’s clever sound design is filled with classic Foley effects—slamming doors, creaking basements, clanging phones, and other hair-trigger noises. And even as the performance is fun to hear, the script itself presents some 21st-century food for thought.

Watch before listening?

For one thing, though it’s funny, a play about multiple murders and outrageous behavior is not quite as funny as it might have been in past years. And the intricacies of the plot present some listening hurdles. It will be helpful in following the action if you have actually seen the show onstage or onscreen. If not, you’ll need to pay close attention as the antics audibly careen in and out of invisible pratfalls and pitfalls.

Hearing a farce is challenging, because the form’s theatricality and comic impact is largely (perhaps almost exclusively) visual. In a staged production of Arsenic and Old Lace there are split-second entrances and exits through the set’s many doors, along with nooks and crannies where people hide (or try to). And here, there’s also a body in the parlor window seat that figures prominently in confusing the action. With so many audible comings and goings, it can be challenging to figure out exactly who’s doing what to whom and when.

So while it’s nice to be reminded of those good old days when plays were onstage—and it’s guiltily comforting to visit the land of period melodrama—this adaptation is not REP’s most successful foray into audio drama. But don’t move your radio dial. There are two more to come.

Image description: A screenshot of a Zoom session shows six Resident Ensemble Players theater artists working remotely, each in their individual rectangle. They’re all wearing headphones and laughing and smiling as they record.

What, When, Where

Arsenic and Old Lace. By Joseph Kesselring; radio drama adaptation by Ernest Kinoy. Directed by Steve Tague. Presented by the Resident Ensemble Players at the University of Delaware.

Streaming free through May 16, 2021, on the REP website.

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