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'Arsenic and Old Lace' – The DTC's First Read-Through

by Jerome Weeks 4 Jan 2011 4:44 PM

The big names were all gathered today for the start of the Dallas Theater Center’s revival of the classic comedy of murderous aunts. Big names like Betty Buckley, Tovah Feldshuh — and the biggest Tony Award-winner, William Ivey Long.


In his remarks at today’s combined press conference and first rehearsal for the Dallas Theater Center’s revival of Arsenic and Old Lace (opening Feb. 4), artistic director Kevin Moriarty (below, chatting with Betty Buckley) pointed out that he had never actually seen a professional production of the venerable 1941 Broadway hit.

Much as he did for the first rehearsal of the DTC’s It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s Superman, Moriarty related a childhood episode: When he first encountered Arsenic at a community theater, he laughed so hard his mother had to tell him to pipe down.  But since then, he said, there have been very few full-bore, commercial revivals — even as the play, much like Harvey, has become a very well-worn perennial for high school and amateur theater productions. That’s thanks mostly to the celebrated 1944 Cary Grant film version, which also starred Peter Lorre and Raymond Massey.

Actually, Dallas saw one such major revival in 1986 — a Broadway-bound tour directed by Brian Murray that came to the Majestic Theatre with Jean Stapleton, Tony Roberts, Abe Vigoda and William Hickey. Now there’s a cast. But the show, as I recall, was not that great.  And not glowingly received in New York, either. But the star power kept the show running for six months at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on 46th Street.

The star power at the Wyly Theatre has certainly generated some interest as well: The Tony-winners Betty Buckley and Tovah Feldshuh will be playing the pious Brewster sisters, the spinster aunts of drama critic Mortimer Brewster, who is mostly worried about his wedding engagement until he discovers that the daffy duo have been happily murdering lonely gentlemen callers for mercy’s sake. The sisters figure the men’s outlook on life might be uplifted by going six-feet under.

From all this, one might get the impression that Moriarty is using the DTC to re-live his childhood dreams — with bigger names and budgets. But it was actually the show’s director, Scott Schwartz who had the original idea of casting the two grand dames in a revival. According to Moriarty, about a year and a half ago, he spoke to Schwartz about shows he’d like to direct. Schwartz is the son of Godspell composer Stephen Schwartz and is best known for staging Broadway’s Golda’s Balcony (with Feldshuh) and off-Broadway’s Bat Boy. And out popped the idea of a Buckley-Feldshuh Arsenic. Fact is, Schwartz said, he’d already directed Arsenic when he was at Harvard. Not only did he long for another crack at it, he’d already proposed the revival to the two actresses.

Besides, said Moriarty, it’s time for some humor — not only because of our current cultural/political situations. This season at the Theater Center, Arsenic and Old Lace follows the dramas, The Trinity River Plays and Henry IV.

Yet to contemporary eyes, ears and backsides, one of the weaknesses of Arsenic — apparent even in the Frank Capra film — is that it takes forever for the farcical action to get started. (In fact, a number of the inside-theater quips that perk things up along the way — Mortimer says his life has become an August Strindberg re-write of Hellzapoppin‘ — these were reportedly added to Joseph Kesselring’s script by the show’s original producers, Howard Lindsey and Russel Crouse, who knew something about keeping a comedy afloat. They wrote the book for Anything Goes in 1936).  But director Schwartz revealed that he’s planning on shpritzing things up a bit. While his  staging will indeed feature the show’s traditional box set of  the aunt’s old-fashioned sitting room in Brooklyn,  designer Anna Louizos (who also worked on Golda’s Balcony with Schwartz) has given it unexpected twists, some ways of demonstrating the play’s theme of the macabre and comic tucked inside the homey and ordinary.

As an example, Schwartz described his mood-setting opener, which will involve a misty outdoors scene in which a small-scale version of the Brewster house (left) — gets blown up onstage.

Well, that may kick up some laughs.

With Louizos, it’s clear the DTC wanted to surround Buckley and Feldshuh with top-tier (imported) artists. Indeed, for some of us, the real Broadway legend working on this show is costume designer William Ivey Long, whose hit credits stretch back to the early ’80s with the original productions of Nine and Mass Appeal, run through Hairspray and Guys and Dolls and most recently, Grey Gardens and — lookee here — Young Frankenstein, the tour of which opens tonight at the Winspear Opera House.

Long also has another Dallas connection — although he’s actually never been here before, he said. He won the second of his five Tony Awards designing the lovely ’30s-period dresses for Crazy for You, Dallasite Roger Horchow’s great Gershwin revisal from 1992.

From such credits, it’s clear Long is a master of period costumes, particularly ones with a touch of Hollywood glamor.  Buckley and Feldshuh must know, whatever else happens, they’re going to look good.