Think your relatives are embarrassing? Aunt Martha and Aunt Abby consider it their charitable duty to poison lonely old men with spiked elderberry wine — and they’re among the saner members, comparatively speaking, of the outwardly respectable, stuffily WASPy Brewster clan. There’s also a nephew named Teddy who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt and is digging the Panama Canal in the family’s Brooklyn basement. Another nephew, Jonathan — portrayed by Boris Karloff in the original Broadway version — is a homicidal maniac who has employed an alcoholic plastic surgeon to disguise his identity, with the result that he now bears a remarkable resemblance to Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster.
Bring a pair of sympathetic young lovers — Mortimer and Elaine — into the mix and you’ve got Arsenic and Old Lace, Joseph Kesselring’s macabre 1939 stage comedy inspired by a real-life serial killer who ran a nursing home in Connecticut in the 19-teens. It will be performed by the Drama Club at New Paltz High School from Thursday to Saturday, November 12 through 14.
Most people know the show from Frank Capra’s classic 1944 movie version starring Cary Grant. “I saw it when I was a kid. I was always joking with my sister, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we did Arsenic and Old Lace?’” recalls NPHS senior and Drama Club veteran Meaghan McElroy. “I’m playing Abby Brewster. She’s the sweetest old lady who happens to murder people because it’s the right thing to do — with the help of her sister.” McElroy relates how director Nancy Owen “wanted us to bustle around…so I went home and Googled ‘old lady walk.’”
Becky Dugatkin, a sophomore, plays Martha, “the other Brewster sister who likes to kill men,” and is also finding it challenging to learn to move convincingly like an elderly woman. “I’ve never played an old lady — I’m 15. So it’s expanding my acting ability.” But she’s enjoying getting her teeth into the role of the dotty old murderess: “She’s just so oblivious to everything that’s going on.”
Jeremy Brownstein, another senior who has appeared in many NPHS Drama Club productions, had a small role in a community theater production of the same play five years ago and urged Owen to put it on. “I’m really excited and happy that it’s my senior-year play,” he says. “It feels good making people laugh. What makes the show funny is the bizarreness of the situation.” Brownstein gets to chew up some scenery as the villain, Jonathan Brewster, whom he describes as “your everyday average murderous lunatic” and “funny/scary. He’s not only incredibly arrogant, but also incredibly evil.”
In the Cary Grant role of Mortimer, Adam Joyner, also a senior, gets the dual challenge of “trying to keep a straight face” as one of “the only sane characters” in the play, and also having to do most of the running around in this dark-but-zany door-slammer farce. “I’m getting a definite workout,” he says. Elaine, the sweet young ingénue who is Mortimer’s love interest, imperiled by his crazy relatives, is played by junior Mikal Kalus. But she also gets some vigorous action scenes: “There’s a scene where I’m being strangled, and that’s real fun for me,” she says happily. “I like the role.”
“It’s an intelligent, hardworking cast,” says Owen approvingly, “and a lot of fun. I have always loved this show, and it has always been in the back of my mind to do it.” What has held her back until now, says the Drama Club advisor, has been the fact that there are usually a lot more girls than boys involved in student theater productions, so “I’m always looking for female-heavy shows.” But this year, boys active in the club outnumber girls, so Owen was able to select a play with more male roles. “It’s kind of fun when you have a play floating around that you didn’t think that you could do!”
Curtain time for Arsenic and Old Lace at the New Paltz High School auditorium will be at 7:30 p.m. on November 12, 13 and 14. Tickets cost $7 for all on Thursday evening, $10 general admission and $8 for students and seniors on Saturday and Sunday. Don’t miss it — it’ll make your dysfunctional family Thanksgiving seem like a piece of pumpkin pie!