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It's poison, sweetly delivered

The Baltimore Sun

Tombstones sprout like mushrooms in the Center Stage orchestra pit, seeming to grow loose and wild among the grass.

We don't even notice them at first. Instead, the audience's gaze lingers on the artifacts of Victorian gentility crammed into a rooming house in Brooklyn in 1941: the lace tablecloths, crocheted doilies, cut-crystal decanters. If there was a grandfather clock in the Brewsters' sitting room, it would chime decorously.

But once we notice that cemetery, it's hard to focus on anything else.

Center Stage is opening its 45th season with a production of Arsenic and Old Lace that gives equal weight to both sides of the play's title. It might not be entirely accurate to describe Arsenic as a black comedy, but at the very least, it's an awfully dark shade of charcoal.

In a way, Joseph Kesselring's venerable warhorse is an odd choice for Center Stage. For more than six decades, Arsenic has been a much-performed staple of high schools and community theaters, but it is seldom mounted on professional stages. Less-than-expert productions have drowned Arsenic in so much whimsy that its mordant soul gets lost, much as the Victorian era obscured its furniture with velvet pillows, porcelain figurines and other frippery.

But director Irene Lewis manages the play's tone so deftly that the audience never forgets that there are two pairs of serial killers on stage.

Comedy often is described as "buoyant," and Arsenic and Old Lace bears similarities to those floating markers that warn small crafts away from dangerous shoals. Though the show seems to drift about in response to the slightest shift in the currents, Lewis ensures that it's firmly anchored somewhere way down deep and out of sight.

Lewis doesn't overdo it; after all, the script never invites the audience to feel sorry for the victims. Instead, the play playfully suggests that Abby and Martha Brewster may really be performing a charitable act by dispatching lonely widowers to the sweet hereafter.

It seems that the two sinister spinster sisters have concocted a recipe for elderberry wine that is a real killer. When their nephew, Mortimer, discovers that there are 12 bodies buried in the basement, he is reluctant to marry his true love, Elaine, because he fears that he has inherited the strain of insanity that apparently runs in the family.

The problem isn't just Mortimer's aunts; his two brothers also have flipped out. Teddy is convinced that he is Theodore Roosevelt and is digging the Panama Canal in the basement. Jonathan has a few skeletons in his own closet -- plus one more in the rumble seat of his getaway car.

The cast is uniformly strong. Pamela Payton-Wright is particularly funny as Abby Brewster, who has such a strong notion of propriety that she might whack a widower but would never tell a fib.

As Payton-Wright plays her, Abby is the slighter and frailer of the two sisters. Much of the comedy comes from the tension between Abby's physical vulnerability and her sweet single-mindedness when she has murder on her mind.

Both Payton-Wright and Tana Hicken, who plays Martha, are canny enough to know that the play's humor derives from the sisters' absolute assurance that killing codgers and burying them in the basement is logical, rational -- and even merciful. They'd gladly explain the whole situation to that nice, young police officer, if he'd only stop nattering on about the play he's written and give them a chance to confess.

Hicken delivers a solid portrayal as Martha, though one that's uncharacteristically subdued. There never is a moment when her character seizes the stage in the way that Arsenic's other actors do, and as Hicken herself has done in countless other roles.

Ian Kahn uses his inherent solidity to good advantage as Mortimer, the drama critic who hates his job so much that he writes his reviews before the opening curtain. This Mortimer seems so grounded, so firmly planted on the Earth, that it makes his eventual upending even funnier.

Kudos also go to the licorice-limbed Carson Elrod, as Jonathan's accomplice, Dr. Einstein. As the play heats up, Elrod becomes increasingly elastic, until he practically melts all over the furniture.

And, in a small role, Craig Blackthorn has the perfect voice to portray Lt. Rooney -- a shrill boom that is the human equivalent of a police whistle.

Lighting designer Jeff Nellis wittily gives the proceedings a glow that verges on the otherworldly. Tony Straiges has designed a set brimming with bric-a-brac that never lets the audience forget the savagery lurking beneath even the most demure exteriors.

Take a second look at that cemetery in the orchestra pit. With their upright form, rounded tops and off-white color, those tombstones resemble nothing so much as a set of human teeth.

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