Who knew? I went to Baltimore last Saturday to review a revival of a mossy old chestnut for today’s Wall Street Journal, and it turned out to be as fresh as tomorrow’s bread:
What’s so funny about mass murder? Nothing–unless you happen to be watching a performance of “Arsenic and Old Lace,” whose principal characters have piled up two dozen corpses between them, with No. 25 about to quaff a glass of elderberry wine laced with arsenic, strychnine and cyanide as the curtain falls.
The phenomenal durability of Joseph Kesselring’s only successful play is a matter of record. It opened on Broadway in 1941, ran for 1,444 performances, was filmed by Frank Capra, and has since become God’s gift–or, rather, Satan’s–to community theaters and amateur actors. But it tends not to get done by first-class companies nowadays, and so CenterStage’s crisp, well-cast revival is something of a revelation. I knew “Arsenic and Old Lace” was funny, but I didn’t know it was this funny. Anyone who doesn’t shatter a rib laughing at CenterStage’s production is…well, dead.
Also on my plate was the Keen Company‘s production of The Dining Room:
Of all A.R. Gurney’s studies of life among the WASPs of northeastern America, the best one might just be “The Dining Room,” whose Off Broadway premiere put him on the map. “The Dining Room” is celebrating its 25th birthday this season, and the Keen Company has marked the occasion with a very fine Theatre Row revival that makes the strongest possible case for a theatrical craftsman who doesn’t get nearly enough respect.
Inspired by Thornton Wilder’s “The Long Christmas Dinner,” “The Dining Room” takes place, according to Mr. Gurney, in “a dining room–or, rather, many dining rooms.” The play consists of a series of cunningly dovetailed dramatic vignettes in which the author explores his preferred theme, the postwar erosion of upper-middle-class self-confidence, with the utmost skill and variety. The six actors in the cast play a total of 57 roles, so many that the “characters” in “The Dining Room” come across not so much as individuals as deftly sketched archetypes. Most of the playlets are comic, but the overall effect is intensely elegiac, in large part because of Mr. Gurney’s mixed feelings about the lost world that spawned him. He knows its limitations, but he also appreciates its virtues, and it is this honest ambiguity that makes “The Dining Room” so involving.
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