Arts and Entertainment

STC’s Killer Winter Comedy is Murderous Fun

Review of STC’s Winter Drama Arsenic and Old Lace

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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By Ryan Radwan

Coming off the heels of a solid fall musical, STC continues to improve, delivering a hilarious product: a winter comedy disguised as a drama. Under the leadership of Executive Producer Dale Heller, STC managed to flawlessly bring the 80-year-old Arsenic and Old Lace into the modern theater, a testament to both the original work and the STC’s production.

Arsenic and Old Lace begins inside a grandiose home in 1940s Brooklyn. Mortimer Brewster (Dylan Ross) has just proposed to his now-fiancée, Elaine Harper (Ananya Gupta), who immediately returns home to inform her father, Reverend Dr. Harper (Mariya Markova). Mortimer gleefully announces his engagement to his aunts, Martha and Abby Brewster (Dinah-Luba Beylison and Elizabeth Neftin, respectively), who he quickly discovers have been luring and poisoning lonely old men in need of a room to keep themselves entertained. While Mortimer is processing this information, his brother, serial killer Jonathan Brewster (River Soto), returns to the family home with his accomplice Dr. Einstein (Unique Zhang) while on the run. After both murderous duos’ secrets are revealed, Jonathan attempts to kill Mortimer but is stopped by the police, who recognize his scarred face. After ending his engagement to Elaine, believing that he too will fall victim to the history of mental illness afflicting his family, Mortimer is overjoyed when his aunts inform him that he is not a Brewster by blood. Mortimer reunites with Elaine, while Abby and Martha commit to a mental institution.

Senior River Soto stood out as a particularly convincing and sympathetic villain, personating the most complex character in the show, Jonathan Brewster, with nuance and poise. With the rest of the characters primarily played for laughs, Soto’s portrayal of Jonathan provided much-needed moments of seriousness and intensity, delivered with unrivaled passion. On Friday night, Soto also swiftly dealt with his microphone falling off his face, quickly recovering without missing a beat, making the mishap nearly imperceptible to the audience.

Junior Dylan Ross also showed significant improvement from his already entertaining performances in previous STC shows. In the role of Mortimer Brewster, Ross took his portrayal to the next level, turning what could have been a role similar to those he’s played before into an evolution of his abilities. Given that Mortimer was reacting to the absurd events of the show alongside the audience, Ross’ performance was even more relatable and human, completed by Ross’ trademark charisma. 

However, it is senior Unique Zhang’s performance as Dr. Einstein that proved her to be the most seasoned member of the cast. With six STC performances under her belt—more than any other cast member—Zhang masterfully employed quick thinking when required, particularly on Friday night, when a section of the set fell apart several times. Zhang struck a perfect balance between covering for the rest of the cast, delivering a carefully constructed performance, and hilarious background comedy, all while performing entirely in a European accent.

The comedic duo of senior Dinah-Luba Beylison and junior Elizabeth Neftin as the elderly Brewster aunts was another highlight. The two perfected a signature old lady shuffle, eliciting a round of laughter from the audience every time they entered or exited the stage. The duo committed their murders in a hilariously calm and nonchalant manner that truly balanced out the gruesomeness. STC newcomer and senior Alexander Hinchliffe gave an impressive debut performance as Officer O’Hara—not only was he hilarious, but he also provided a character of innocence in a show full of murderous old ladies. 

Unfortunately, Teddy Brewster, played by sophomore Henry Santos Hendricks, may have been amusing at first, with his character believing that he is President Theodore Roosevelt, but the oversized mustache given to him severely limited his diction, making him difficult to understand at times and less emotionally effective. To no fault of Hendricks, the character of Teddy was played solely for comedic purposes, despite the character’s gimmick stemming from serious mental illness. This felt like a missed opportunity to craft a tragic character who could have stolen the show and better honed Hendricks’ talent. 

Senior STC veterans Rebecca Ke, Aleksey Olkhovenko, and Matthew Monge also appeared in guest-starring roles, which was nice to see, given how seasoned the three are and how well they’ve practiced their craft. 

The direction of juniors Sasha Ruinsky, Gabriella Hoefner, and Rachel Alvarez was clear in the final product, always keeping the scene deliberately moving so that static moments were more noticeable and poignant. It’s a technique seen most recently in STC’s last Winter Drama, Hedda Gabler, which Hoefner also directed, but this show elevated that technique to new, previously unattained heights.

Despite the fact that the set remained static throughout the show, its many intricacies and sheer size more than made up for it. Based on a monstrous eight-foot-tall platform, the set took up the entire stage, complete with five 16-foot walls, a luxurious staircase, and more. These massive walls were painted with ornate fuschia flowers as well as a few framed photographs and newspaper clippings that made the audience feel as though they were transported back to the ‘40s. Other than these, the most notable prop was the antiquated grandfather clock that not only was embellished with clean brushstrokes, but both of the hands of the clock face were regularly turned by Props members backstage, demonstrating the intensive attention to detail that went into this show.

The costumes for this show were rather simple but highly effective. However, a few stood out as especially striking, such as Elaine’s bright yellow pinafore dress, which drew the audience’s attention as soon as she entered a scene, emphasizing her upbeat and optimistic attitude. The white collars on Martha and Abby Brewster’s dresses added to their creepy, yet strangely warm demeanor by making them appear ever-so older. Furthermore, the costumes were completely transformed by the cast’s makeup, making Neftin and Beylison appear as if they were actively graying with a short, white streak-filled wig for Neftin and a white hair mask for Beylison, as well as defined wrinkles on their faces. It would be impossible to talk about makeup without mentioning Jonathan Brewster’s scarily convincing scars stretching across his entire forehead and down his cheek. The rough skin coated with flecks of blood and scar tissue truly expressed the severity of his botched surgery performed by Dr. Einstein, deepening the tension whenever Jonathan needed to ensure Dr. Einstein would remain under his control.

Lights and Sound delivered a nearly flawless show, with errors being few and far between. The bugle effect consistently served as comedic relief every time Teddy would yell his signature “Charge!” and bolt up the stairs. However, more serious scenes used a dark red haze that made the audience hush and grip their seats tightly for whatever happened next.

From deliberate direction to strong technical components, STC’s production of Arsenic and Old Lace was a remarkable blend of refreshing humor and poignant moments. It’s clear that a tremendous amount of passion was poured into this project, and with that energy seemingly on the rise, there’s bound to be more brewing behind the curtain…