Murderous Mayhem

Two totally different comedies delight at Live Theatre Workshop

Now, here's a two-course theatrical meal that could keep you up all night: a nicely roasted old chestnut, followed by a highly spiced piece of gristle that rewards a thorough chewing-over.

Live Theatre Workshop opened two absolutely unrelated comedies last weekend. The mainstage presentation is Joseph Kesselring's classic, Arsenic and Old Lace, wherein two charming, gently murderous old ladies find their hobby endangered by one nephew who's basically good, and another who is very, very bad. The late show is John Patrick Shanley's extended political metaphor Dirty Story, wherein two not-so-charming, not-so-gently murderous characters--call them Israel and Palestine--undertake a sadomasochistic apartment-sharing scheme.

You'd think one play or the other would be unendurable, Arsenic and Old Lace old-fashioned and stale, Dirty Story annoyingly self-righteous. Not so. Each is quite fulfilling in its own distinct way, and Live Theatre Workshop trots them both out with hardly a misstep.

In Arsenic and Old Lace, elderly sisters Abby and Martha Brewster are engaged in a number of charitable works, none more important or more satisfying to them than putting lonely old men out of their misery. They lure the guys to their home, supposedly offering a room to rent. One glass of poisoned elderberry wine later, the gentleman callers are installed in the basement with a proper ceremony, their graves prepared by nephew Teddy, who believes himself to be Theodore Roosevelt digging the Panama Canal.

Alas, the ladies' earnest nephew Mortimer discovers this odd pastime and agonizes over how to put a stop to it without getting his aunts incarcerated. Enter another nephew, the long-lost and malevolent Jonathan, and a sidekick introduced as "Dr. Einstein," who have their own use for those holes in the basement floor.

Aside from the characters' travails, just about everything goes right in this production, fluidly and wittily directed by Sabian Trout. Peg Peterson and Roberta Streicher are endearingly loopy as the aunts, as artlessly delighted with their "charity" work as if they were canning preserves. Despite a couple of well-covered memory lapses on opening night, they presented strong, consistent characterizations.

Stephen Frankenfield as Mortimer played the comedy broadly, and proved to be a master of delayed reaction. Richard Ivey made a welcome return to LTW after something like a five-year absence as the shady Jonathan, his dark, oily smooth baritone delivery a threat in itself. Larry Fuller's Dr. Einstein was full of gemütlich Old World charm, not a bad fellow to be tagging along with such a villain. Molly Holleran's lively but not overdrawn portrayal of Mortimer's fiancée was another asset of this very entertaining production.

After about a 30- to 45-minute break on Friday and Saturday nights, quite a different comedy takes over the storefront theater's little stage. Shanley's Dirty Story, written in 2003, turns Israeli-Palestinian relations into a black absurdist comedy, set largely in a Manhattan apartment. The Israel figure, here called Wanda, is an earnest young novelist with a history of roommate problems who dreams of having a home of her own. She presents her unpublished manuscript, some sort of utopian novel intended to represent Zionism, to an experienced but dour writer named Brutus, the Palestine figure. He's arrogant, condescending and hostile, and has no interest in fiction; his focus has shifted to unpleasant realities.

After a truly disturbing scene in which Brutus has Wanda dress up like the title character in The Perils of Pauline, ties her to a ladder and lunges at her with a chainsaw--trust me, it makes sense in context--the two wind up sharing Brutus' apartment, which coincidentally had been occupied by Wanda's grandfather many years before. Of course, things go very, very badly, and Wanda enlists the aid of the reluctant Frank, a bombastic Texan reminiscent of the Uncle Sam character in Robert Coover's The Public Burning, and his ineffectual English sidekick, Watson.

Shanley's script, unlike so many political plays, minimizes the polemics by not really taking sides. Every character has at least a halfway understandable motivation, and each has at least a dim understanding of his or her own limitations. (Brutus, for example, realizes that he can't "capitalize on today; I can't grasp the new.")

This is the sort of play you should see twice, so you can catch some of the early metaphors that slipped by you the first night. It would surely be a pleasure to see this cast in action multiple times. Jonathan Northover, who co-directed the production with the savvy Carolyn Marbry, doesn't make the mistake of begging us to like Brutus, yet he doesn't play him as a monster, either. Nell Summers as Wanda is appealing and optimistic in her first scene, and nicely vindictive later. Roger Owen plays up Frank's strutting bombast and self-confidence without turning him into Yosemite Sam, and the single-named Chax takes a gentle, slightly world-weary approach to the role of Watson.

Don't expect Shanley to provide any tidy resolution. For any chance of that, you have the option of making a donation in the theater to the International Peace Academy.