Arsenic and Old Lace has 14 characters, and three of them are serial killers. That might not seem like an obvious starting point for comedy, but this classic American play, which was written in 1939 and first produced in 1941, has become one of the stage’s most enduring and even beloved properties, thanks to the dark humor of little old ladies who poison their boarders and the long-suffering main character, drama critic Mortimer Brewster. Just how long suffering is he? Played by Jay Carlander in the Theatre Group at Santa Barbara City College’s new production that opens this weekend, Mortimer is, according to director Katie Laris, “like Job. Insanity and murder are at the core of his family life, but he’s got to play it all as a farce.” Laris went on to praise Carlander for his natural grace onstage, citing not only his “great comic timing” but also the fact that he “moves so well” as two of the factors that led her to cast him in the central part. With Out of the Box impresario and fine actress Samantha Eve cast as his love interest, Carlander’s Mortimer should have plenty of motivation to keep his homicidal siblings in check.
The play’s author, Joseph Kesselring, originally conceived of the premise for Arsenic and Old Lace as a gothic tragedy, but his producers wisely advised him to court a Broadway audience that enjoyed the combination of wacky characters and wisecracks. Some of the gothic elements were retained — horror movie staple Boris Karloff played the serial-killing brother in the original production — but the playwright successfully added a dazzling layer of rapid-fire quips to the proceedings, thereby inventing an entire kooky genre: screwball noir.
Arsenic and Old Lace will be at Garvin Theatre through July 26, Thursday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. The July 10 performance is a preview, and the Sunday, July 13, performance will be live-captioned for the hearing-impaired. For tickets and info, call (805) 965-5935 or visit theatregroupsbcc.com.