The Dallas Theater Center’s current production of Joseph Kesselring’s “Arsenic and Old Lace” offers an evening of laughter and a good lesson in how comedy should be done.
Broadway legends Betty Buckley and Tovah Feldshuh lead a first-rate cast who make the 1941 Broadway hit fresh, funny and utterly delightful. I can’t remember a better evening in the theater.
The play, which runs through March 13, revolves around the loopy – and lethal – Brewster sisters, Abby (Feldshuh) and Martha (Buckley), who live in a ramshackle Victorian mansion in Brooklyn, along with Teddy, their equally loony brother, who believes he’s the incarnation of Teddy Roosevelt. Teddy’s taken to digging the Panama Canal in the basement.
Nephew Mortimer, a theater critic, does his best to look after his three relatives, but things come unwound when Mortimer, played by Lee Trull with impeccable comedic timing, accidentally discovers a dead body in the window sill.
It seems the aunts and their poison-laced elderberry wine have been the end of a dozen or so “lonely” old men who showed up to rent a room but never left.
The plot thickens as Mortimer tries to find a way to protect his aunts from criminal prosecution. Add a relative who’s escaped from an insane asylum and you have the perfect recipe for a hilarious disaster.
If last Tuesday’s sold out crowd reaction is any indication, the play should have no problems making the transition to Broadway.
“I think it was always conceived from the beginning that it would hopefully transfer to Broadway,” Buckley said during a telephone interview prior to a rehearsal on Thursday. “The director [Scott Schwartz], in putting this particular production together, brought an A-list team together – the creative team, the design team and first class Broadway designers. The lead producer is from Broadway. Let’s hope it happens.”
Buckley has a life-long love for musical theater and performed at Six Flags Over Texas while she was growing up in Fort Worth. While she was student at Texas Christian University, she was selected as Miss Fort Worth 1966. She was 2nd runner up at that year’s Miss Texas Pageant. Officials were so impressed with her big voice that they asked her to sing at Miss America.
After impressing USO officials in Atlantic City, Buckley was asked to tour with the Miss America/USO group. She then found her way to New York, where she won the part of Martha Jefferson in the original cast of “1776.” The rest, as they say, is history.
If “Arsenic and Old Lace” does transition to Broadway and she signs a long run-of-the-play contract, Buckley will return to the site of many triumphs.
She won a Tony for her performance in “Cats.” She played Grizabella and sang “Memory,” the show’s most signature tune. When asked about being identified with the song, Buckley says she’s grateful to have had such a gift.
“Not every singer gets a signature song so beautiful and universal as ‘Memory,’” she said. “I’ve never grown tired of it. Not at all.”
She also has found memories of playing Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard.” Her arrangement of “As If We Never Said Goodbye” has become almost as famous as “Memory.”
“It was a great role and a wonderful time in my life,” explained the actress. “I sing one or two songs from it in every concert I do.”
If there is a role she’d like to play, she says at one time it was Annie Oakley.
“I wanted to do ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ in a real arena version, recreating a wild west show, but I think that time has passed,” she said with a laugh.
During her long run in the theater, Buckley also starred in “Pippin,” “Song and Dance,” “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” and the musical “Carrie.”
But seven years ago, she left the Big Apple and bought a small ranch near her hometown of Fort Worth.
“After 9/11, I really realized from the whole experience, that I forgot to get a cutting horse,” she explained with a laugh. “That’s something I always wanted to do. So I went on this quest to find a cutting horse. I connected with one of the top trainers in the business, who took me on as a student and helped me find a horse.”
At the time, Buckley was commuting from New York.
“I thought, ‘I need to move where my horse is,’” she said. “I have a really pretty little place with a barn, four horses, tons of barn cats and rescue dogs. I’m very blessed. It’s a real refuge.”
Buckley may have moved home to find some peace and quiet, but she hasn’t slowed down.
“This week has been particularly busy because I flew right out on Sunday to Los Angeles and flew back on Tuesday,” she said. “I fly back to LA early Friday. I have an orchestra rehearsal Friday afternoon and then a concert with Marvin Hamlisch on Saturday. Then, I’m back in the play on Sunday.”
In addition to the play and guest appearances with orchestras, Buckley’s putting the finishing touches on her 14th CD, “Ghostlight,” which is produced by T. Bone Burnett and is set to be released in the fall.
Buckley also believes in giving back. On Mondays – her day off from the play – Buckley teaches song interpretation at the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth.
“My students are giving concerts at 7: 30 p.m. on March 28, 30 and 31 at the museum,” she said. “They’re terrific, amazing singers.”
Although she may need to relocate, if only temporarily, to New York City, right now, Buckley is content to work at the Dallas Theater Center.
“The DTC is a great place,” she said. “All the people there are so, so, so sweet and lovely and kind and generous and very good at what they do. All the reviews have been raves and incredibly generous. It’s been a real pleasure. It’s a blast.”
Everything about “Arsenic and Old Lace” is fun. The fabulous set design by Anna Louizos is so detailed, it’s hard to see it all, even during the 2-hour performance. The costumes, created by Theatre Hall of Fame member William Ivey Long, are impressive, especially when the aunts don their “mourning clothes” in the second act. The liquid black beadwork on Feldshuh's gown is stunning. I would love to see it up close.
In addition to Buckley and Feldshuh, who are masters of their craft, the rest of the cast shines.
Of particular note is Trull, who makes the best of his long, lanky frame in the required pratfalls. He doesn’t miss a beat while delivering dialogue, stepping over the furniture and trying to keep his wits about him – and he makes it look easy.
Nehal Joshi, who plays Dr. Einstein, also brings a lot of finesse to the stage, making the most of every funny moment tossed his way. The audience rewarded him with a rousing ovation during Tuesday’s curtain call. Bravo!
Abbey Siegworth, who plays Mortimer’s girlfriend, Elaine, is the only one in the cast who struggles. Although likeable, she’s so tightly wound at the beginning of the first act, it’s hard for her to find another gear when things really get dicey.
Treat yourself and see “Arsenic and Old Lace.” It runs through March 13, with matinees on Saturday and Sunday.
The theater is dark on Mondays.
“Arsenic and Old Lace” - Now through March 13 - The Dallas Theater Center - 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd. - Tickets: $15 - $57- 214-880-0202 - www.dallastheatercenter.org
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