So, there's this drama critic, see, Mortimer Brewster, who comes from a long line of lunatics, including one brother who believes he's Teddy Roosevelt and another who enjoys frightening, choking and even torturing other members of the family. The late father and grandfather, owners of a dubious home medical practice, have left behind a sinister laboratory and their own trail of unsavory behavior, but at least there's Mortimer's maiden aunts, who seem to be simple, good-hearted, Christian ladies. . . .
Have I mentioned the house guest? The incompetent plastic surgeon?
It would be difficult to imagine a play more devoid of meaning than Joseph Kesselring's 1941 Broadway smash "Arsenic and Old Lace." And of course, that's the point. The Tantallon Community Players production, directed by Anne Janeski and co-directed by Charla Rowe, religiously obeys the golden rule of the screwball comedy: Make it broad, make it loud and never, ever give your audience a moment to think.
Janeski's direction is best when the stage is crowded; she's very good at managing movement and multiple conversations so that our attention finds just the right spot in time for the facial reaction, the sight gag, the punch line. The set, a generic mid-20th-century Victorian living room designed by Janeski, is also used well. Part of the fun of "Arsenic and Old Lace" is that much happens off stage, in the kitchen, the cellar, the upstairs and outside; certain moments of the play seem like a turn at Whack-a-Mole, with characters popping in and out of doors and windows as fast as the eye can follow.
Performing in such a play is less an exercise in high thespian art and more a matter of just keeping up. Mortimer Brewster is played by newcomer Daniel Tuden, whose google-eyed and full-throated apoplexy would be funnier in smaller doses, though he does meet the challenge of most of his loose-limbed slapstick routines. Tony L. Wagner, as Teddy, the Brewster who would be Roosevelt, can be shrill, but when you spend much of the play's two hours charging San Juan Hill (in the form of the living room staircase), you're allowed to go over the top.
Abby and Martha Brewster (Susana Romero and Kay Motture), the maiden aunts with impeccable manners and a yen for making particularly toxic wine, are, unfortunately, often drowned out by all of the noise and activity. Their soft-spoken delivery can be difficult to hear clearly amid all the shouting, and when this happens, the comedy, which depends on quickness and timing, can backfire.
This imbalance between loudness and quietness is finally resolved midway through the play by the arrival of Jonathan Brewster, the "bad brother," played with refreshing range by Tim Travelstead. The actor is able to work at several volumes, from rage to dry amusement, and dominates the stage with his collection of sneers, flinches, clenched fists and crooked smiles. Martin Ziner strikes the right nervous, obsequious notes as Jonathan's traveling companion and partner in crime, the alcoholic Dr. Herbert Einstein.
The creators of "Seinfeld" like to quote the motto that helped to make the television show such an enormous hit: "No sharing, no growing, no learning." Joseph Kesselring would have surely agreed. Nothing is shared in "Arsenic and Old Lace" except coffins, only the level of absurdity grows, and as for learning, at least you'll leave the theater with increased knowledge of "the Melbourne Method." Take a length of curtain cord, a sizable handkerchief and a bagful of shiny surgical instruments . . .
Oh, go find out for yourselves.
"Arsenic and Old Lace" will be performed at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at Harmony Hall Regional Center's John Addison Concert Hall, 10701 Livingston Rd., Fort Washington. Admission is $12 for adults, $10 for seniors and students. Call 301-203-6070.