Arsenic and Old Lace at Cockpit in Court

TheatreBloom rating:

Madness, thy name is Brewster! Me thinks the aunties doth protest too much! Oh— wait a minute— the season of Shakespeare and all’s well that goes with that has concluded. Let’s try this again. Madness runs in the Brewster family; it practically gallops, though it isn’t quite the truth either. Madness doesn’t run through the Brewster family, it meanders slowly taking its time to get intimately acquainted with each and every member! And you’ll find out just how intimately insane the Brewster clan is but only if you venture out to Cockpit In Court for the first mainstage show of their 2017 season! Kick-starting the summer with a good and thoroughly uproarious bang, Director F. Scott Black steps out of the shadows of retirement and up into the directorial limelight— perfectly timed as the theatre is newly christened with his namesake— to bring Cockpit’s audiences Arsenic and Old Lace. A gay romp of hysterical proportions, the virtues of another day— including mayhem, charm, and delightfully clean humor— are contained soundly within the walls of that very theatre! A scream of a good time is guaranteed for all and this top-notch production does not disappoint!

Darren McDonnell (left) as Mortimer Brewster and Kristen Miller (right) as Elaine
Darren McDonnell (left) as Mortimer Brewster and Kristen Miller (right) as Elaine Amanda N. Gunther

Stunning is a word that readily comes to mind when eyes land upon the Brewster family home. Scenic Designer Michael Rasinski puts the most elaborately decadent set on the main stage since Sunset Boulevard five seasons ago. The sheer grandeur of the upswept verticality of the set is glorious and the interior color scheme is devious; this is the perfect match for the overall tone of the play: inviting yet foreboding. The rich blood red walls (and the faint yellow patterning, compliments of Scenic Artists Jess Rassp and Sam Callanta) with their even richer mahogany paneling goes sublimely with everything that’s happening in the Brewster household— including what you can’t see happening down in Panama! (This might be the cellar…or it might be Panama…you just won’t know until you go!) Rasinski puts divine touches of detail into the set; the peacock stained glass windows over the infamous window seat bench are quite breathtaking, especially when backlit by Lighting Designer Thomas Gardner. Though the backlighting is one nifty trick, and looming shadows as people enter and exit the space is another, Gardner’s shining glory in his illuminating design work is the dripping blood gobo that appears as the show gets underway.

Outfitting the company to that charming foregone era of class and style in the great state of New York is Costume Designer Sharon Byrd. Of course, there’s something to be said for the zanier characteristics that drift into play for this play, but Byrd handles them as masterfully as she does the other sartorial selections. The aged dresses and their patterns and styles are perfect fit for the Brewster sisters. The slick suits work well for every gentleman that dons one; the officers, lone detective, and the good Reverend all have outfits that are befitting of their occupations. Byrd’s finest work is featured on the darling Elaine; her opening outfit— the fitted red and black polka dot dress, the fur stole, the flashy hat, and character shoes— are simply to die for! Byrd keeps Elaine looking classy as ever all throughout the production, even when she’s in her almost ephemeral-looking nightgown; it gives her a ghostly appearance! And let’s not forget the wonders Byrd does for Teddy BOOM-BOOM Roosevelt, or just Teddy Brewster as the case may be; those outfits are fit for a king, or at the very least the President of the United States, 26th edition.

Joan Crooks (left) as Martha Brewster and Carol Conley Evans (right) as Abby Brewster
Joan Crooks (left) as Martha Brewster and Carol Conley Evans (right) as Abby Brewster Cockpit in Court

Their duty is their duty— these minor cameo style characters— who appear but briefly and somehow are still memorable. Officer Brophy (Rick Arnold), Officer Klein (Leonard Gilbert) and Officer O’Hara (Nathan Rosen) comprise the heavy legal side of things, with the first two bringing subtle Brooklyn style accents and Rosen bringing a heavy dose of put-upon Irish sound to his character. All three have decent coming timing and add a hint of local color to the insanity gallivanting about inside the Brewster home. Mr. Gibbs (Richard Ahlstrom), whose tottering and doddering behavior is experienced for just a few moments in one scene, is equally memorable because of the way he presents himself. And this critic would be remiss entirely if good notice wasn’t given to the legendary Dave Guy for his cameo appearance as Mr. Witherspoon. Guy, who appears ever so slightly at the end of the production, has a knack for drawing a world of attention to his character simply by arriving and puttering about on the stage as such characters are wont to do.

Lieutenant Rooney (John Dignam) should too fall into this category of once-upon-a-momentary-cameo artists, however, Dignam is so bombastically present and forward with his arrival that he steals the final scene of the show with his antics. They’re nothing extraordinarily over the top but his delivery of his lines are so sharp and crisp, the attitude is so spot-on with an irked and irritated Lieutenant that Dignam has all eyes on him. Included with this staunch presence is a thick-cut accent that puts most NYC flatfoots to shame. Noted too here, alongside Dignam’s brilliant performance is J.R. Lyston, playing the Rev. Dr. Harper. Though he’s only about in the beginning of the play, much the way Dignam is at the end, there’s something alarmingly unforgettable about his portrayal as well.

Companionable relations that are much like kin to the Brewster family come in two varieties: the milquetoast and mealy Dr. Einstein (Dale Trott) and the fiery little pip Elaine (Kristin Miller.) Trott, who is the sidekick of sorts to the mysterious Jonathan Brewster, has a knack for appropriately framing the scenes he shares with his liberally vertical scene partner. Trott’s wobbly German accent is perfect for the character as it adds just the right sprinkling of humor to his lines. His comic timing, which is mostly languid and pace-matched to the overall cadence of Johnathan’s speech patterns, is easy going and good for a softer chuckle. Miller, as the spit-fiery female companion to Mortimer is quite the burst of energy upon the stage. Delivering an accent appropriate of a 1940’s young lady, with a well-developed handle on the gait and overall physicalization of the character, Miller is delightful in the role; she serves as an exemplary compliment to Mortimer Brewster and her outbursts, all of which revolve around the aforementioned Brewster brother, are loaded with spunk!

Bully for Teddy (B. Thomas Rinaldi) and all of the silly shenanigans that go along with the so-so sanity of the character. Rinaldi fully embraces the madness that envelops Teddy, and delves into the reality of a man who believes he’s the 26th president of the United States. Over-the-top, overly-boisterous, and overtly flamboyant, Rinaldi is a blasting as his bugle in the role. With a militaristic sharp snap of his heels, which travels upward through his entire body making a precision right-angle turn every time he switches directions, Rinaldi presents both the rigid intimidating version of the former president as well as the sashaying eagerly excitable one, whenever he bursts out into some ridiculously flamboyant statement. Watching him charge up San Juan Hill— also known as the main staircase in the Brewster house— will steal your breath with laughing. Rinaldi must be seen to be believed because he’s just too damn funny to describe! Bully!

Greg Guyton (left) as Jonathan Brewster and Dale Trott (right) as Dr. Einstein
Greg Guyton (left) as Jonathan Brewster and Dale Trott (right) as Dr. Einstein Cockpit in Court

Playing the polar opposite of Rinaldi’s bombastically charged Teddy is Greg Guyton in the role of Jonathan. With a stilted physicality caught somewhere between Frankenstein’s monster and every classic horror figure from the 1940’s, Guyton is intimidating and spooky to say the least! Between the rigid posture and stiff shuffling gait, the deep and languid cadence of his speech, and the dead glare of his eyes, it could easily be said that Guyton is hosting a séance— channeling Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney, and Bela Lugosi all at once into this freakish amalgamation that is Jonathan Brewster. What’s more intimidating still is the makeup plot that Guyton develops for his character. Sinking his eyes deep into the sockets of his skull, creating garish definition across his cheeks, a greenish-yellow jaundice that tinges gray in the light over his face, and stitch marks to reflect his various reconstructive surgeries, Guyton has created a monster in his visage! Watching him intimidate the others and go wild when his temper gets the better of him is the darker edge of the humorous blade that stabs the show multiple times. Seeing Guyton in such a reserved fashion is an exceptional treat, fully showcasing the man’s versatility as a performer, as he is often seen portraying a more hyper-active character.

Joan Crooks (left) as Martha Brewster and Carol Conley Evans (right) as Abby Brewster
Joan Crooks (left) as Martha Brewster and Carol Conley Evans (right) as Abby Brewster Cockpit in Court

Lord help the mister who comes to see the Brewster Sisters…and lord help those sisters when it comes to their “charity” with those gentlemen! Abby (Carol Conley Evans) and Martha (Joan Crooks), who can tell them apart? Evans and Crooks reunite for at least the third time in the roles of the dotty, dippy, and doolally Brewster sisters, and like fine wine they’ve only ripened with age! Evans and Crooks share a deep-seeded sororal bond as Abby and Martha; their comic exchanges are flawlessly timed. Their over-the-top reactions to all sorts of chaos and mayhem are a great deal of the driving force behind the uproarious screams of laughter featured all throughout the production. Evans, who is particularly dotty when flouncing about through the house, is a hoot, especially when she grins over the insane happenings inside the home! Crooks, who is equally maddeningly delightful, has a sunny and vague disposition, matching line for line, move for move, and moment for moment the energy, hysterics, and overall humors of Evans. The pair are perfect for the parts and guarantee laugh after laugh; you might even say you could laugh yourself to death with these two!

Greg Guyton (left) as Jonathan Brewster and Darren McDonnell (right) as Mortimer Brewster
Greg Guyton (left) as Jonathan Brewster and Darren McDonnell (right) as Mortimer Brewster Cockpit in Court

Great gadzooks! The things that poor Mortimer Brewster (Darren McDonnell) has been exposed to in his life as a dramatic critic could never have prepared him for the unbelievable theatrics happening right in his childhood home! McDonnell, as the charming and dashing Mortimer, sweeps into every scene with a hasty urgency; he slides through the front door like he was on ice skates! Possessing a dapper sense of style both in his posture and overall presentation of the character, McDonnell fully embraces the theatricality of spry young journalist on the rise in New York City in 1941. What’s even more impressive than his debonair sense of how to handle the ladies, his column, and his dear doddering aunties is the way he balances the physical comedy he presents throughout the production. Taking utter shock in one hand and a desperation for composure in the other, McDonnell sets them to rights in his vividly animated facial expressions as well as his vocalizations. This is particularly true every time he discovers something amiss— like peering into the window seat box! McDonnell tempers the over-the-top melotheatrics of the character in earnest by honing in on the more down-to-earth moments, allowing the character to breathe so that he isn’t a hollow construct of a caricature. Watch his smug smirks whenever it comes to dealing with Jonathan; they are truly rewarding and a great example of the multidimensional approach that McDonnell takes to the character.

It’s time to take the Brewster family up on their invitation to come over for tea! You’ll be enjoyed! You’ll be entertained! You’ll meet President Resident Roosevelt and Boris Karloof! Just don’t— whatever you do, even if it includes venturing down to Panama to inspect the locks— don’t under any circumstances drink the wine!

Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission

Arsenic and Old Lace plays through June 25, 2017 at Cockpit in Court in the F. Scott Black Theatre of The Robert and Eleanor Romadka College Center at the Community College of Baltimore County Essex Campus— 7201 Rossville Boulevard, Essex MD. For tickets call the box office at (443) 840-2787 or purchase them online.

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