LATHAM — There’s a delicious moment in Act II of “Arsenic and Old Lace” when Abby (Carol Charniga) opens the window seat and notices the corpse of someone she doesn’t know. Surprise slowly changes to disapproval, and given Abby’s behavior up to now, we know the dead man has evidently lost his manners and is on her bad side! Charniga’s delivery is priceless.
Wait. Back up. You mean that Abby expected to find someone else in the window seat? Absolutely: one of the men she and her sister, Martha (Robin Leary), have charitably dispatched with their homemade elderberry wine laced with arsenic — charitably, because these are poor, familyless men who have come to the large Brewster residence looking for a cheap room to rent. Euthanizing is merely the Christian duty of this sweet old duo.
Joseph Kesselring’s play, which premiered in 1941, is an old chestnut. After a long Broadway run, it took its place in the repertory of high schools and community theaters, perhaps because it has numerous monochromatic parts and a sly daffiness. It doesn’t demand much of us, except to get through a couple of dry patches in Act II, but if propelled forward by a shrewd director, like Cindy Bates, and an able cast, like this one, it’s an amusing night in the theater.
The Brewsters are an odd lot. The aunts have three nephews: Jonathan (Howie Schaffer), the family baddie; Teddy (Matthew Perret), who fancies himself Teddy Roosevelt; and Mortimer (Matthew Reddick), a theater critic and (if this isn’t a contradiction in terms!) the only sane one of the bunch.
And when Mortimer discovers what his aunts are up to, suddenly the zaniest play he might ever review is taking place in his own home. His attempts to make sense of the loopy situation and help it achieve a satisfactory denouement without hurting his relatives becomes his goal.
Richard Cross pulls triple duty, scoring as an unsuspecting boarder and a put-upon police lieutenant. Sean Baldwin is properly kooky as a would-be-playwright beat cop. Schaffer’s makeup is horrifyingly good and his snarling aggressiveness is actually enough to fluster Martha and Abby.
And Perret loudly charges through his role. Bully!
Steve Leifer (always reliable and here sporting a fine German accent) plays Jonathan’s sidekick, Dr. Einstein, who becomes increasingly woebegone as events unfold.
Reddick and Brooke Hutchins as his fiancée, Elaine, niftily capture some of the screwball chemistry (physical and verbal) that characterized the work of, say, Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. Reddick’s energy and delightful double-takes are the stuff of this kind of comedy.
Leary’s Martha is the perfect foil to Charniga’s Abby: the sisters are in sync, elaborating each other’s ideas and confirming the other’s decisions. Despite Martha’s pleasant manners and Abby’s constant bustling and twinkling, like Aunt Bee on “The Andy Griffith Show,” these wacky women have strong opinions and steel backbones.
Frank Oliva’s set is handsome and spacious. Beth Ruman (costumes), J. Fok (lighting), Dan Rider (sound), and Rebecca Gardner (stage management) complete the excellent tech crew.
There’s a handful of other chestnuts from the 1930s-1940s that might be up Bates’s alley. She has already done “Harvey.” Maybe “You Can’t Take It with You”?
Arsenic and Old Lace
WHERE: Curtain Call Theatre, 1 Jeanne Jugan Lane, Latham
WHEN: through May 5
HOW MUCH: $25
MORE INFO: 518-877-7529, or curtaincalltheatre.com