By MIKE CHAIKEN
Martha and Abby Brewster are the sweetest women you’d probably meet.
They have tea time using their fine china. They meet with the local pastor. And they have a disdain for live theater.
But there is a secret in the basement… they have a bevy of bodies they have accumulated over the years.
It sounds like a horror story. But despite its horrific premise, “Arsenic and Old Lace” (which is based on a true story in Connecticut) is a knee slapping stage play—which is probably best known for its cinematic translation that starred Cary Grant.
The stage comedy is currently being performed by the Connecticut Theatre Company in New Britain.
The play by Joseph Kesselring features a gaggle of well-rounded idiosyncratic characters in addition to the Brewster sisters. Audiences will meet the Brewsters’ nephew Mortimer, and their brothers Jonathan and “Teddy,” as well as the incidental neighbors and visitors who come to the quaint home in Brooklyn at opportune (and inopportune) moments.
Marianne Hebenstreit, who plays Martha, said, “I think playwright Kesserling has done a superb job of developing characters.”
“Their relationships are unique,” said JoAnn Dewind (Abby) of the characters. “I have no idea what happened in (Kesserling’s) life that he could visualize this other than the true stories that took place in Windsor.”
“It’s a comedy of manners…,” said Johnny Revicki, who plays the malevolent Jonathan. “I enjoy the interplay of the dark side…” with bodies buried in the basement in a world where everything is “prim and proper,” said Revicki.
“I really enjoy playing Mortimer, who’s the straight man of the show,” said Dan Collin. “He’s embroiled in all of this chaos… It’s a metaphor of how people deal with daily life. You’re trying to keep everything together, just like Mortimer is. You’re putting out fires. Avoiding disaster and everyone around you seems crazy. In your mind, you’re the only sane one.”
Dewind said, “It seems to me (Kesselring’s’) thinking of all the characters and the paths they’re taking simultaneously. And the way he has them crisscrossing with assumptions… he’s just created these characters’ paths and the ways they intersect, it’s really funny.”
“I just think it’s completely entertaining from beginning to end,” said Hebenstreit. “You’ve got to listen to the dialogue because some of these lines are delivered very flat and very subtly and they’re great lines. It’s engaging that way. You’re listening for every word to get the joke.
“I like (Kesslring’s) use of language. It’s a play where you have to pay attention to what the people are saying. It’s very rapid fire. If you’re not engaged you might miss something,” said Collin.
Revicki said, “It’s funny how similar, for a dark comedy, it is to a bedroom farce— with clapping doors, people coming in and out, and there are near misses…We’re all so close to figuring out what’s going on and oblivious at the same time.”
The show has been a staple on stages since its original debut in 1939. But the actors of CTC said the local production is putting its own stamp on the dramatic warhorse.
DeWind said, “I think Susan (Smith, the director) trusts the actors to look at the characters and find their voice and their mannerisms but at the same time she’s given us direction that’s shown us things perhaps we didn’t see.”
Hebenstreit said, “Everybody I think has interpreted their character differently than I would have thought of it myself… They’ve made them their own… That’s what’s fun about it because these characters can be played with….”
“I think people who are familiar with the movie are definitely going to see something different,” said Collin. “We’ve definitely cranked up the absurdity, cranked up all the jokes, cranked up all the characters. The movie’s a little bit more reserved and kind of let’s the situation speak for itself, where we’re definitely turning up the volume on everything.”
As for the appeal to the audience, DeWind said, “It’s a darn good cast in addition to being a fantastic play.”
Revicki said, “It’s comedy right from the get-go. The characters are big and broad. The story is so ridiculous, right off the bat. You’re going to laugh… It’s so over the top.”
“You can never get tired of the comedy that comes through with live actors… There’s nothing like watching a live production… It’s vibrant,” Hebenstreit said.
“There’s a certain energy you get from live theater that you don’t get watching something on television or watching something at the movies,” said Collin. “There’s something about seeing that and engaging with that in a room full of 100 strangers that creates a different energy.”
The Connecticut Theatre Company’s production of “Arsenic and Old Lace” continues Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. at The Repertory Theatre, 23 Norden St., New Britain. Tickets are $18 and are available at ConnecticutTheatreCompany.org