I’m not sure I was an unbiased viewer of tonight’s live performance — Arsenic and Old Lace at the Ottawa Little Theatre.
Some of you may remember back in the day when my lovely bride and I were married at that theatre. We had been season’s tickets subscribers in the past, it was near our old neighbourhood, and we were looking for an off-beat venue. It was perfect for us. So we kind of have a special place in our heart for the old girl. And this year we are season’s ticket holders again. We missed the first play, but I really wanted to see this one. So much so that we changed the tickets to a more convenient night as next weekend is a bit busy.
Why was I excited? Because it’s Arsenic and Old Lace, duh.
I know, I know, you probably don’t even know AOL as anything other than an internet provider that old people used to use. Well, no, A&OL is Arsenic and Old Lace. Lots of older people would remember it as an old Cary Grant movie. If they were truly aware, they would know that it was based on a hugely successful Broadway play starring Boris Karloff, who is referenced repeatedly throughout the original play, movie and tonight’s version. But me? I first heard it as an old-time radio broadcast following an “intro” to radio dramas in Grade 9 Canadian History class.
The comedy tonight has three main levels of cast members…tier 3 involves some beat cops, a visitor, a director of a sanitarium. Tier 2 involves a bride-to-be, a plastic surgeon, and three nephews. And tier 1 includes two elderly aunts. As you find out within the first few minutes of the play, Aunt Martha and Aunt Abby have taken to performing acts of charity with lonely old men — they poison them and bury them in the basement.
Now, with the two aunts, the show lives or dies by their delivery. If they’re “on”, the play sings; if they’re not “on”, it suffers. Tonight? Janet Banigan as Aunt Martha and Sarah Hearn as Aunt Abby were downright awesome. They tripped over lines a couple of times, but not egregiously, and they do occupy almost 40% of the play. Entirely believable. Played by Jean Adair and Josephine Hull in both Broadway and film versions, the characters are delicious to watch. Innocently spooky almost. Just don’t drink their elderberry wine.
The three nephews — Mortimer, the normal one; Jonathan, the criminal; and Teddy, the one who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt — were played by Kurt Shantz, Paul Williamson, Dan Desmarais (the roles occupied by Cary Grant, Raymond Massey as clone of Boris Karloff, and John Alexander in film). Shantz and Williamson were pretty solid, although Shantz looked a bit too much like Dan Ackroyd in Trading Places at times when he was going for “smug”. Williamson was definitely thug-like for his role, a little bit nutty with a strong mean streak.
The Doctor was played by Claude Laroche, and I almost want to see the film version to see Peter Lorre in the role. Can’t even imagine him as Einstein. With Mary Whalen handling the part of Elaine, the girlfriend/bride-to-be (Priscilla Lane in the film in one of her last roles). I’ve seen Whalen before, and she’s hit and miss for some roles — tonight she did great. As did Laroche, in a role that is hard to balance between a little sleazy, a little weak, a little mousy, a little evil.
The rest of the cast is a bit of a wash both in terms of their performance as well as the roles themselves. In the radio drama, most of them don’t even show up — mostly it’s just the three nephews, two aunts, the doctor, and a beat cop. Seven cast members, not the 13 who were in tonight’s version.
I was nervous — I like the play so much and I just wanted them to nail it. Which they did.
One of the best performances Andrea and I have ever seen at the OLT. Great night…