Drama critics spend much of their lives dishing it out, so they ought to be able to laugh when the plate is passed back to them. Hence, the first-act banterings in "Arsenic and Old Lace," Joseph Kesselring's 1941 farce being revived at the 46th Street Theater, launch some jocose barbs at the arbiters on the aisle. For example:
The Rev. Dr. Harper is taking tea in the Brooklyn home of Abby and Martha Brewster, those sweet, wacky old sisters who hasten lonely old bachelors to eternity via elderberry wine laced with arsenic. The good reverend is disturbed by the relationship between his daughter and a Brewster nephew, who is a theater critic.
Rev. to Abby: "I'll be frank with you. I'm speaking of your nephew's unfortunate connection with the theater."
Abby: "The theater? Oh, no, doctor, Mortimer writes for a New York newspaper."
Rev: "I know but a dramatic critic is constantly exposed to the theater, and I don't doubt that some of them develop an interest in it."
Abby: "Not Mortimer. You need have no fear of that. Why, Mortimer hates the theater."
Abby: "Oh yes, he writes awful things about the theater. But you can't blame him, poor boy. He was so happy writing about real estate, which he really knew something about."
While these ripostes are exchanged, "Arsenic" is quite funny. In fact, it holds up well as a strong, comedy-murder mystery with several imaginative yet plausible twists.
This production is marred, however, principally because director Brian Murray has elected to parody a parody, a course of action that rarely works. In collusion with some of his actors, he has painted their characters so broadly that they seem like caricatures of caricatures. One caricature is plenty to make the point. If a script itself tends toward the outrageous, performances gain from being played almost straight or perhaps just slightly exaggerated.
This is not the case with, say, Tony Roberts. He plays Mortimer as if in the grip of St. Vitus dance. Constantly atwitch, he seems to be giving lessons in frantic body English. Similarly, William Hickey depicts a hapless, hopeless plastic surgeon like he was auditioning for a 19th-century melodrama.
Abe Vigoda is more restrained as the villainous nephew who looks like Boris Karloff. He has the requisite sepulchral look, yet at times he appears to be just reciting the words.
However, the center of the play holds because the Abby and Martha Brewster roles are in the capable hands of Jean Stapleton and Polly Holliday. Stapleton has brought along some of Edith Bunker's mannerisms and voice tones -- but so what? It fits the character. And Polly Holliday is wonderfully understated as Martha.
MichaelJohn McGann carries off the role of Teddy Brewster with a controlled bluster and nutsy aplomb that befits a man who believes he is Teddy Roosevelt. Gwyllum Williams fits snugly into the role of the minister, though Mary Layne is rather bland as his daughter.
Marjorie Bradley Kellogg has created just the right setting for these loonies to romp in, a solid Victorian Brooklyn manse with a cellar commodious enough to accommodate the graves of the 12 friendless men the dear ladies have despatched to heavenly companionship. Their final resting places have been excavated by Teddy, who thinks he is digging locks for the Panama Canal. That's my kind of humor.
In a sense, "Arsenic and Old Lace" was always an improbable hit and on its revival at the 46th Street Theater last night, its probable and deserved success will doubtless seem as improbable as ever.
Well, this time around, perhaps not that improbable, for this present dose of "Arsenic" has had its mayhem laced with a booster shot of TV stars to make it even more palatable to the audience. (Surprisingly, the play has not been seen on Broadway since its original production in 1941, when it ran for a healthy 1444 performances.)
So how can any play's success be improbable, given by a cast as popular as one led by Jean Stapleton, Tony Roberts, Polly Holliday, William Hickey, and Abe Vigoda?
And the play itself is a delight. It actually gives life and credence to that old critical cliche, "screamingly funny."
Its concept is odd, because it is a murder mystery with no mystery - we know from the outset that these two sweet old ladies in lace and Brooklyn are bent on putting lonely old gentlemen out of their misery with merciful doses of lethal elderberry wine - and the murders themselves are hilarious rather than chilling.
Broadway legend has it that the author, a former music teacher and actor, Joseph Kesselring, originally wrote this as a straightforward melodrama, "The Bodies in Our Cellar."
However the producers, Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse, it has been said, came to the cellar's rescue, and helped rewrite the present script, which - whether the legend is true or not - became Kesselring's solitary Broadway hit.
What is lovely about the play is its matter-of-fact tone. It makes murder into a pleasant, genteel fantasy, with its nutty Brewster sisters amiably competing for laughs with their equally nutty nephews.
One, Teddy, imagines he is Teddy Roosevelt forever charging San Juan Hill, and the other, Jonathan, a less refined killer than his aunts, is a pathological brute who has had his face mistakenly turned into Boris Karloff's by his sidekick, Dr. Einstein, an uncertified plastic surgeon and maniac.
The only touch of sanity - as so often on Broadway - is brought by a beleaguered and blase drama critic - another nephew, Mortimer, who upon discovering his aunts' homicidal peccadillos, tries valiantly to cover them up.
It is the seeming normality of madness added to the effortless confusion of sanity which gives the play its special off-center charm. But the work is also extremely well-constructed; the disclosures are delivered express, and the farcical doors open on time.
The characterizations - especially the dear old ladies addicted to their mercy slayings - are pure delight, and the play is bountifully supplied with one-liners that are well enough aimed to penetrate beyond their one line.
I never saw the original Broadway cast, which actually had Boris Karloff as "Boris Karloff," but the performances of Josephine Hull and Jean Adair are enshrined in the classic movie version that stars Cary Grant as the perturbed Mortimer.
I treasure my memories of the original London production a year after Broadway, which had the wonderful Dame Lilian Braithewaite and the diminutive Mary Jerrold dispensing the wine and laughter, and I also recall a very recent, and unexpectedly elegant, realization the play received at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego.
Brian Murray's present staging is rather broader, indeed the unkind might think it heavy-handed. But it does have that old-fashioned, tack-thumping bravura which characterized the Broadway/West End style of its period.
This theatrical authenticity is carried over into the setting by Marjorie Bradley Kellogg, which looks, most persuasively, as if it could have been in storage since the '40s.
The performances are strikingly mannered. The sisters are now in the expert hands of Jean Stapleton and Polly Holliday. With Stapleton, perhaps Edith Bunker, her accent and grimaces are still living on the same block, but like the delicately fluttery Holliday, Stapleton shows a disarming charm.
Both are the kind of delightful old ladies with whom it would be a pleasure to take a final nightcap.
As Mortimer, Tony Roberts makes double takes into quadruple takes, and blusters through the play in a state of perpetual stupefaction.
Abe Vigoda has a few nice Karloff moments as the villainous Jonathan, and William Hickey does his usual William Hickey impersonation as the scalpel-wielding Einstein. Michaeljohn McGann is bully enough as Teddy, but Mary Layne seems not quite sufficiently cute for Mortimer's fiancee Elaine.
"Arsenic and Old Lace" is not a potion for over-sophisticated palates - it never has been - but for audiences wanting a splendid, uncomplicated belly-laugh, this is just the ticket.
Wait for the curtain calls. They have a surprise in store for you.
Those who haven't recently encountered ''Arsenic and Old Lace,'' Joseph Kesselring's smash Broadway hit of 1941, may be surprised to discover that its hero is a drama critic for a New York newspaper. His name is Mortimer, he's the nephew of the murderous Brewster sisters, and he is, of course, the most likable character on stage. In the revival at the 46th Street Theater, the role is played by Tony Roberts, who, early in Act I, can be heard muttering about the ''stinker'' he has to cover at the theater that night. But Mortimer is such a nice guy that he's willing to revise his judgments according to his mood. When his sweetheart (Mary Layne) gives him a big kiss, Mr. Roberts smiles and says, ''I may give that play tonight a good notice.''
Times have certainly changed. In 1986, it might take a visit to an orgy to make Mortimer smile benignly on ''Arsenic and Old Lace'' - and even then, he'd be within his rights to insist that the orgy run as long as the play's first act, which seems to go on for about three weeks. The years haven't been kind to Mr. Kesselring's farce, which once provided escapist entertainment for theatergoers who had a real reason to seek escape (World War II) and who had not yet been presented with television, the invention that now permits audiences to watch situation comedies in the privacy of their own homes. Seeing the play now, in a production fittingly top-heavy with television performers, is to understand why high schools have been more inclined than Broadway managements to revive it over the past four decades.
To be sure, Mr. Kesselring had a good idea in ''Arsenic.'' He imagined that two pious spinster sisters in Brooklyn (Jean Stapleton and Polly Holliday) would be models of propriety in every way except one - they insisted on murdering (for mercy's sake) the lonely old men who came to their Victorian mansion for lodging. The trouble is that the author, having established this once-daring premise early on, is left with no energy or ideas for developing it. ''Arsenic'' quickly devolves into a flat imitation of the eccentric-household comedies of Kaufman and Hart. The sisters' ghoulish hobby is regularly upstaged by Mortimer's dreary romantic travails and by the machinations of his two nutty brothers, one a vicious insane-asylum escapee (Abe Vigoda), the other a tiresome loudmouth with delusions of being Teddy Roosevelt (Michaeljohn McGann). Although there's a rudimentary farcical structure - Mr. Vigoda has a corpse of his own to dispose of - the plot takes forever to crank up and is less than ingeniously resolved. ''Things are going to start popping around here any minute!'' says Mortimer once the machinery finally starts to click -but by then it's already 10:15, and ''any minute'' is still almost a quarter-hour away.
About all that remains funny in the script are the gags about critics and the theater, at least some of which were interpolated by the play's first producers, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. There are cheering references to Nora Bayes, Brooks Atkinson, ''Hellzapoppin'' and, in the evening's one sure-fire sight gag, Judith Anderson. One must also admire the exchange in which Mortimer's fiancee demands that he ''be fair'' to the plays he reviews. With just the correct note of righteous indignation, the otherwise genial Mr. Roberts snaps back, ''Are these plays fair to me?''
It could be argued, perhaps, that this staging is not entirely fair to Mr. Kesselring. Brian Murray, who earlier this year uncorked the fizz in ''Hay Fever,'' has staged ''Arsenic'' at a pace appropriate to ''Long Day's Journey Into Night'' - and I don't mean Jonathan Miller's streamlined version. While we wait in Act I for the Brewsters' latest corpse to be let out of the bag (or window seat), there are gaping pauses - they might as well be accompanied by winks - around any line that all too ironically hints of the forthcoming revelation of the sisters' dirty secret. Later, the corpse-switching slapstick takes roughly 10 times as long as the equivalent business in ''Loot'' (in which Joe Orton, a quarter-century later, took Kesselring's repressed themes and gave them a full and nasty airing). The dour set, designed by the talented Marjorie Bradley Kellogg in seeming emulation of the Adirondacks lodge she memorably contributed to ''Moose Murders,'' adds to the heaviness: it's a Charles Addams haunted house without Mr. Addams's essential, leavening note of mischief.
Mr. Murray's casting is quixotic. While Miss Holliday and Miss Stapleton are solid character actresses, they never really let go and give the sisters distinctive personalities. They draw the contrast between the Brewsters' bloodthirsty acts and charitable demeanor without making the contrast funny. Mr. Vigoda plays a goon who is constantly mistaken for Boris Karloff - a joke that must have been hilarious when Karloff originated the role. Although Mr. Vigoda's visage is almost as formidable as Frankenstein's monster's, his performance is merely heavy, when it's a comic heavy that's required. As his sidekick, William Hickey recycles his wonderful turn as the underworld godfather in the film ''Prizzi's Honor'': all the elfin gestures and stiff-shoulder contortions are trotted out for the amusement of his fans - if not of his upstaged fellow actors - but the routine seems hollow when stripped of point and of the cadaverous facial makeup that accompanied it on screen.
In the large supporting cast - too much of it playing stereotyped Irish cops - some decent actors (Miss Layne, Gwyllum Evans, J. J. Johnston) are wasted in stock roles. But the hardest working member of the company by far is the generally reliable Mr. Roberts - who, trapped in a part too young for him and a play too geriatric for the audience, must overcompensate by mugging every time anyone goes near his aunts' bottle of poisoned elderberry wine. One can only hope that his character pleads conflict of interest and refuses to review his performance in ''Arsenic and Old Lace.''