`Arsenic and Old Lace': a comedy refusing to become dated. Preposterous is the word for this homicidal welfare program

Arsenic and Old Lace Comedy by Joseph Kesselring. Directed by Brian Murray. Starring Jean Stapleton, Tony Roberts, Polly Holliday, William Hickey, Abe Vigoda. In its weird and wildly funny way, Joseph Kesselring's ``Arsenic and Old Lace,'' at the 46th Street Theatre, epitomizes the comedy of the preposterous. Although the antic business involves murder, the victims are killed with kindness by two dippy maiden aunts who probably never heard of euthanasia. Kesselring's treatment of insanity, whether harmless or threatening, exists in the area of fantastic fiction. Were it otherwise, the zany spoof could scarcely have become a hit that ran 1,444 performances after opening in 1941 under the Lindsay-Crouse banner.

The heart of the explanation lies in the irresistible innocence with which Aunts Abby and Martha Brewster were drawn and how they are played by Jean Stapleton and Polly Holliday in this revival. The philanthropic spinsters' solution for the plight of their lone and elderly male lodgers is to dispatch them with a swig of poisoned elderberry wine and give them a decent burial in the cellar of the Brewsters' Brooklyn home. Their basement graves are provided by Teddy Brewster (Michaeljohn McGann), a harmless mental case who imagines himself to be Teddy Roosevelt occupied, among other things, with digging the locks for the Panama Canal.

The cold light of reason enters this demented scene in the person of the Brewsters' nephew Mortimer (Tony Roberts). Even though he is a drama critic, Mortimer is horror-struck by what he learns.

Mortimer immediately sets about to put an end to his aunts' homicidal welfare program and, if possible, to rescue them from the consequences of their misguided deeds.

His efforts are quickly complicated by the arrival of brother Jonathan Brewster (Abe Vigoda), who as a result of plastic surgery bears a disquieting resemblance to one of Boris Karloff's more sinister characters. Jonathan means no good to anyone.

The rest is a scramble of cross-purposes and unforeseen plot twists. As the maiden aunts, Miss Stapleton and Miss Holliday respond to each new surprise or crisis with attitudes ranging from impervious serenity to uncomprehending disbelief. But they never for a moment lose the sense of propriety with which a well-bred Brooklyn lady should confront life's little awkwardnesses. The attitude is sweet, the effects highly comic.

Consternation takes on a new meaning in Mr. Roberts's brilliantly resourceful performance as Mortimer.

Mr. Vigoda is a darkly menacing Jonathan. William Hickey's ``Dr.'' Einstein (with a German accent you could cut with a scalpel) and Mr. McGann's rambunctious Teddy make their own indispensable contributions to the make-believe.

As Elaine Harper, the next-door minister's daughter to whom Mortimer becomes engaged, Mary Layne proves what good looks and spunk can do for a thankless ingenue role.

Under Brian Murray's tautly comic direction, the large cast maintains an essential air of comic believability throughout the three dizzily unfolding acts. Mr. Murray even had the audience laughing at some of the humorous references that were current when the comedy first appeared.

Marjorie Bradley Kellogg's living room set is genteel-Gothic, with a grand staircase for Teddy's charging ascents and a convenient window seat for body stashing.

The production is costumed in suitable period styles by Jeanne Button and lighted, with passing spooky effects, by Pat Collins.

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