Have a cup of tea?
“Arsenic and Old Lace” isn’t a particularly sentimental show, but it has a sentimental appeal to director David El’Hatton.
It was the second show he ever did at Youngstown Playhouse, and his father died during the run of the production in 2001.
“It’s where I met my theater family,” he said. “During the run I was dealing with funeral homes. It’s where I met my people. There’s a whole world here that is fun and supportive. I think I want to stay here.”
So when the original director slated to do the show at Youngstown Playhouse dropped out, El’Hatton let former managing director Mary Ruth Lynn know he was interested.
“Literally every time I saw Mary Ruth for the next week, I said, ‘Me. Arsenic. Me. Arsenic,'” he said. ”Finally, she said, ‘OK, you can have it.'”
Joseph Kesselring’s comedy about two old ladies with a nasty habit of poisoning gentleman callers, a nephew who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt, another nephew who’s even scarier and the exasperated theater critic who has to deal with all of them remains a staple with community and regional theaters 75 years after its debut.
El’Hatton said there is a simple reason why.
“I’d go as far to say it might be the greatest American comedy ever written,” he said. “Take a look at it, it’s definitely in the top 5.”
According to the director, its influence can be seen in every sitcom from “The Dick Van Dyke Show” to “Frasier,” and it’s a testament to how far ahead of its time the show was in that audiences still find its humor off -the-wall.
“I know this show inside out,” he said. “I know what jokes work, what one don’t, what jokes you think are going to work but fall flat, and I know how to fix them.”
John Cox plays Mortimer Brewster, the nephew who has to deal with his crazy relatives, and his deadly aunts are played by Terri A. Wilkes and Dana Dunnavant. The rest of the cast includes Victoria Lubonovich, Charles Simon, David Jendre, Frank Martin, Tom O’Donnell, Ezekiel Ellis, Jim Hain, Joseph Scarvell, Daniel Lancy, Vijay Welch-Young, and Dennis Villa.
“It’s sort of an all-star cast,” El’Hatton said. “Look at that list. I have Tom O’Donnell in the small, throw-away role of the reverend. The guy who does one-man, three-hour shows is my first-10-minutes-of-the-show guy … I got David Jendre as Doctor Einstein. I can’t remember the last time he was on stage doing something, and he showed up for me? Wow. Everyone on stage you’ve seen many, many times before in many other roles. I’m just grateful they wanted to be a part of this.”