When the sanest person in a family is a theater critic who thinks he is crazy, what do you have?
Joseph Kesselring’s 1941 “Arsenic and Old Lace” was one of the most popular comedies in the American canon; make that black comedy.
Mortimer Brewster, the critic, has one brother who believes he is Teddy Roosevelt and another who is a killer on the lam with excessive plastic surgery. Topping the cake, though, are Mortimer’s two sweet maiden aunts, whom he visits to announce his engagement.
Why are there bodies in their Brooklyn apartment?
Audience members of Rockville Little Theatre’s (RLT) latest production will soon find out.
“Arsenic and Old Lace” has been on the theater’s wish list for a long time, said Tristan Poje, who is directing.
“It’s one crazy situation after another,” he said of the play. “It’s a farce, which relies so much on timing and what you can call a controlled explosion.”
Natalie McManus plays Martha, one of Mortimer’s two aunts. “After doing one dramatic role after another, I needed to do a nervous comedy,” she laughed.
When McManus heard about Rockville Little Theatre almost a year ago, she made sure to block out the dates for the auditions.
Of the two sisters, McManus said, Martha is a little bit unhinged. Abby is the sister in charge, while Martha is a nervous Nellie. “Some of the lines are so precious.”
Because she looks younger than she is, the actor said she had to find a way to appear older, not only through costumes and makeup but physicality.
Unlike the other characters, Mortimer is the “straight man, unintentionally funny,” said Ryan Patrick Williams, who is in his first role at RLT. “He really tries to do the right thing, do everything by the book, but he’s in shock most of the time.”
Williams said he is glad to be back in the swing of physical comedy, which involves a lot of timing, pacing and big broad movements.
On the other hand, he conceded, he has to stop himself from erupting in “belly laughter.”
Keith Cassidy, in contrast, has done several shows with Rockville Little Theatre, ranging from a farce to a comedy to drama.
In “Arsenic and Old Lace,” Cassidy is playing Jonathan, which happens to be a role he occupied 38 years ago in high school.
“Then I played him mean, nasty and scary,” Cassidy said. “This time, I see him as a sociopath. He’s emotionally distant, lacks conscience. He expects to be welcomed home by his aunts, and he isn’t. When something hurts, he feels anger and gets violent.”
Some of his anger may be understandable since he has lost the good looks he once had for a different kind of face.
Above all, Jonathan is shocked. “He expects to manipulate and charm his aunts, and the situation turns out to be different. He’s more honest than they are,” Cassidy said.
Mortimer is a little odd because when he finds out what his aunts have been up to he is concerned about protecting them, rather than morality, Poje said.
After all, they are famous for their good deeds and philanthropy.
Aside from the murderous and insane doings, “Arsenic and Old Lace” contains an innocent trope: a cop who is trying to publish his life story. Only Poje cast a woman, Maria Flaks, in the role.
Many of the cast members chose not to watch the movie version of “Arsenic and Old Lace” with Cary Grant. They are hoping, though, that even if audiences have seen it, they will still catch the play.
“Arsenic and Old Lace” plays Sept. 27-29 and Oct. 4 -6 at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre, 603 Edmonston Drive in Rockville For more information, visit www.rlt-online.org.