When the Richmond Hill Barn Theatre's current production of Arsenic & Old Lace is really rolling, this venerated black comedy (well, dark-gray comedy) is absolutely delightful. The problem, though - or rather, the problem with last week's opening-night performance - is that Richmond Hill's production doesn't so much roll as lurch; despite their frequently endearing characterizations, the actors on Thursday evening had so much trouble getting their words out that the show never quite found a satisfying rhythm. The experience was like taking a vacation road trip in a vehicle that keeps threatening to stall: You've made it to your destination, and you've had a good time along the way, but you're still a little grateful when it's over.
That's too bad, because the performers' stumbling was really my only grievance with the production. Joseph Kesselring's 1939 comedy - which concerns a pair of elderly sisters who put lonely boarders out of their presumed "misery" by poisoning their wine - is an enjoyably old-fashioned farce featuring an extensive cast of eccentrics, the sort of reliable entertainment that can still crack you up no matter how many times you've seen it. (It's You Can't Take It with You with a body count.)
And certainly, the sizable audience at Thursday's Richmond Hill production appeared more than happy to be there. The gags received their laughs, the comedic complications were greeted with amusingly audible "Uh oh"s (followed by more laughs), and during several scenes that take place in almost total darkness, you'd have thought the mostly senior crowd was back in grade school, telling ghost stories around a campfire; the initially subdued giggles grew and grew until they became raucous giggles.
Director John VanDeWoestyne clearly knows his material and knows his audience, and gets uniformly charming performances from his cast members; there isn't a single one you're eager to see leave the stage. Happily, the most purely charming are Jean Melillo and Wanda Deitrick as the sweetly homicidal sisters, Abby and Martha; the actresses terrifically underplay their characters' dottiness - Abby and Martha explain their morbid doings with unflappable, matter-of-fact deadpan - and the show's best, subtlest laughs come from their anticipatory glee at landing upon another potential victim. (And Deitrick's reading of the play's climactic punchline is perfection.)
This Arsenic, though, is filled with affable performers: Julie Gray, as the put-upon fiancée to Don Faust's acidic theatre critic; David Bailey and Howard Johnson as prospective victims; and Cal Taylor, Mike Skiles, Bill Hudson, and Michael Miller as cops of questionable ability. Each of the show's 14 actors appeared to be having a fine time on the Richmond Hill stage, and for some, a more-than-fine time.
I wish, though, that they also appeared comfortable. But Thursday night found the actors continually tripping over their dialogue: mistaking one name for another; placing words out of grammatical sequence; responding to fellow performers' entire sentences before they were supposed to; delivering the wrong line, stopping, and then delivering the right one ... . (There were even moments when it seemed as though actors forgot their lines; occurrences such as these may make the performers on-stage look rattled, but they turn me, as an audience member, into a nervous wreck.)
No one's perfect, of course, and trip-ups will happen. But in Arsenic & Old Lace, I'd doubt if more than three minutes passed without someone making some sort of verbal blunder, and this quashed any possibility of momentum; every time the show was developing a rhythm, some momentary faux pas interrupted the flow and made the production seem under-rehearsed.
One actor, though, didn't appear the least bit off his game, and perhaps not coincidentally, he appeared to be the one the audience responded to most. (He was certainly my favorite.) Tom Morrow plays the slightly crazy, more-than-slightly-drunk Dr. Einstein, and he delivers his gonzo dialogue with such unabashed peculiarity that he proves utterly indispensable. But in addition to brimming with confidence, Morrow made the audience feel confident; he was so firmly in character that you knew the pacing wouldn't lag so long as he kept conversing, especially during his scenes with the nefarious Jonathan, played by a sensationally animated and comically menacing Kevin DeDecker. When these two villainous goons owned the stage, the show was everything you'd hope it would be: funny, mildly creepy, and thoroughly assured.
Yet for a production that runs some two-and-three-quarter hours, the duo's scenes together - and the considerable appeal of the other actors and VanDeWoestyne's staging - weren't quite enough to make up for the frequently halting presentation. Richmond Hill's Arsenic & Old Lace is perfectly acceptable, and sometimes a lot of fun, but sadly, the only thing that was really being killed on Thursday night was the tempo.
For tickets, call (309) 944-2244.