Off The Wall Theatre ends 2017 with a production of the classic 20th Century comedy thriller Arsenic and Old Lace. Mark Neufang is charismatic as Mortimer--a theatre critic who has just proposed to a lovely girl (Brittany Meister)
The excitement of the occasion is compromised when it becomes apparent that his aunts (an emotionally endearing pairing of Marilyn White and Michelle Waide) have been fatally poisoning a series of lonely, old men who have come looking to rent a room from them. Things get complicated as a shady, old son (Dale Gutzman) returns with his sinister plastic surgeon (Robert Zimmerman) to impose his will on the household which with a basement full of corpses buried by Mortimer’s crazy brother (Lawrence J. Lukasavage) who evidently believes he’s Teddy Roosevelt.
Taken on its own, the comedy is and pleasant, little dark ensemble comedy on a small stage. Taken in the context of the holiday season, it’s a refreshing bit of counter-programming. Nice to see a few corpses moving around onstage for the holidays. This is my kind of counter-festiveness. It’s fun. Having it contrasted against the warmth and sentiment of the holiday season, Arsenic and Old Lace feels remarkably out of place for a light comedy that would have been written in 1939. Seen from one angle, making light of death and mental illness feels tone-deaf and dated, but seen from an entirely different angle, this feels like one of those weird British indie comedies that could have been written in the past decade or so.
There are moments where the ensemble kind of feels like a stylishly retro-contemporary British indie drama. The standard mix of elements come into play in an Off the Wall ensemble with various elements sparkling in the comedic mix. Neufang is excellent as coherent center around which all of the chaos of the story plays out. Meister is strong and assertive as the future wife of a critic. Michelle Waide and Marilyn White are fun as a couple of old women who don’t mind jumping the gun a bit on the whole euthanasia thing. White’s got brilliantly nonchalant delivery on the dialogue. She really wants to be nice and help people and for her that also happens to mean mercifully killing-off lonely, old men. White’s total innocence in delivering the lines is deeply satisfying comedy. White, Waide, Neufang and Meister are a comically engrossing center to a show with lots of interesting bits around the edges including an unexpectedly enjoyable Dale Gutzman playing a man with no regard for human life. It’s more fun than it probably should be.
Off the Wall’s production of Arsenic and Old Lace runs through Dec. 31 at the cozy, little studio theatre space on 127 E. Wells St. For ticket reservations and more, visit Off the Wall online.