THEATER | Guthrie Theater's "Arsenic and Old Lace" gets the job done just fine

Sally Wingert (left) and Kristine Nielsen in Arsenic and Old Lace. Photo by Michal Daniel, courtesy Guthrie Theater.

When the Guthrie Theater announced its 2010-11 season, one of my friends who works in theater groaned. "Come on," she said, "I mean, Arsenic and Old Lace?"

She spoke for many: Joseph Kesselring's 1941 play is unlikely to get a lot of seasoned theater people excited. It's a pleasing script with many nice moments, but probably the most charitable way to praise it is to call it a dinner theater classic. It's a light comedy, and the best way to produce the show is to round up a crackerjack cast, rehearse them tightly, and point them in the direction of strong characterizations. Director Joe Dowling seems to have done exactly that, because this is a very fine production of this theatrical chestnut.

arsenic and old lace, presented at the guthrie theater through june 5. for tickets ($24-$64) and information, see guthrietheater.org.

The plot concerns Mortimer Brewster (Jonas Goslow), whose occupation as a theater critic provides the occasion for many self-referential gags. Mortimer discovers that his two aunts (Kristine Nielsen and Sally Wingert) are up to something horrifying, which they justify as a public service and seem disinclined to stop doing. When Mortimer's psychopathic brother Jonathan (Tyson Forbes) shows up looking for a place to lay low, Mortimer finds himself caught in the middle of a farcically gruesome family feud.

Conducted lithely by Dowling, this talented cast knock out the laugh lines like they're shooting ducks in a gallery—and give their characters such life that they get extra throwaway laughs from their gestures and expressions. There's not a weak link, but particularly notable are the three leads and Kris L. Nelson, who plays the caricatured role of Dr. Einstein (no, not that Dr. Einstein, ba-domp-ching) to the hilt. The set by John Lee Beatty is static but attractive, elaborate, and functional—everything is, to quote Radiohead, in its right place.

This production is sure to please its intended audience, and will even wring a few chuckles from members of its unintended audience who find themselves corralled into attending. But don't take my word for it. For this play about aunts, I brought no less an authority on the subject than my own aunt Betsy. What did she think? At intermission, she turned to me and said, "Those ladies are pretty epic."

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