Strong casting, especially of the murderous Brewster sisters, helps bring laughs to the Guthrie Theater's staging of a comic chestnut.
It's hard to get excited about "Arsenic and Old Lace," Joseph Kesselring's dark farce. Countless jejune productions in community theaters have sucked a lot of the life out of it. Puerile overuse has made this three-act comedy about a nutty, murderous family as vital as a well-worn rug.
Still, if anyone can find a pulse in the 70-year-old play, it is Joe Dowling, whose resurrection of the comedy opened Friday in Minneapolis at the Guthrie Theater.
Director Dowling has loaded his production with an arsenal of guffaw inducements. For starters, he artfully tapped Sally Wingert and Kristine Nielsen to depict the spinster Brewster sisters, Abby and Martha. The pair, who live in the impressive multi-story family mansion (designed by John Lee Beatty), put old men out of their perceived loneliness by poisoning them with elderberry wine laced with arsenic, strychnine and cyanide.
They have an easy way to dispose of the bodies. Their unhinged brother, Teddy Brewster (Bob Davis), thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt and is constantly re-living the Rough Rider's glory days. Teddy digs in the basement, thinking he's working on the Panama Canal. The holes serve instead as graves for Abby and Martha's victims.
Wingert and Nielsen have a supple chemistry, drawing from many influences to construct their farcical yet grounded roles. Both move with a lightness of feet that suggests oscillating characters from the Peking Opera, for example, part of a battery of expressive and funny physical attributes. And when these nice-seeming sisters are alarmed, they sound like creatures fluttering in a henhouse, quacking sotto voce.
Dowling tapped Tyson Forbes to play the sister's bear-like prodigal nephew, Jonathan. He is also in the family business, though not nearly as jolly. Jonathan arrives home with an Igor-like plastic surgeon Dr. Einstein (Kris Nelson), who gives him new faces. Jonathan also has brought home a body.
The comically complicated plot includes theater critic nephew Mortimer Brewster (Jonas Goslow) who is engaged to a minister's daughter, Elaine Harper (Kathryn Lawrey).
The Guthrie cast does good work. They have expert comic timing, playing the script without too much scenery chewing and stage mugging. And the improbable jokes land, eliciting laughter and fun, even if you wish such good actors were doing their good work in something beside "Arsenic and Old Lace."