ARSENIC AND OLD LACE – A DELIGHTFUL COMEDY OF TERRORS AT OUR OWN LAKE CHARLES, LA ACTS THEATRE

 

 

 

 

The Addams Family was an endearing bunch of creepy oddballs. Appearing like zombies, witches and vampires they were actually a loving Mom, Dad, kids and extended family of rich and philanthropic homeschoolers.

The family of Queen Eleanor and King Henry II, in the classic Lion in Winter were not so companionable, and battled continuously with each other throughout the play. Different members bond with, then betray, each other, jockeying for power, land, revenge, attention, or love. At the end of a particularly vicious argument with her husband, Eleanor, left sitting on the floor in the doorway, gathers herself together and to self-console muses: "Well, what family doesn’t have its ups and downs?"

The Guardians of the Galaxy is a band of violent and ethically questionable outlaws and vigilantes who come together as a family unit in part to (re)raise Groot, who is a sentient tree. (See my review on that one here .)

NONE of them have anything on the Brewsters.

The premise of Arsenic and Old Lace is that Mortimer, a once cynical-of-romance theater critic, now totally smitten and freshly engaged to Elaine, the girl next door, goes to his sweet, loving, maiden aunts’ home for a visit and to break the good news.

In residence is his adorable Uncle Teddy, who thinks he is President Theodore Roosevelt, periodically charging up the stairs he knows as San Juan Hill and digging grave sized locks in the basement, which he thinks is the Panama Canal. Hovering in the background is the ominous, but so far absent, other brother, Jonathan. And so the stage is literally set for this very black and very funny slapstick comedy about a family which would put the Guardians on alert, make the Addams Family startle, and have both Henry and Eleanor running for cover. Bodies pile up and are switched like the plates of tuna in Noises Off or the suitcases from What’s Up Doc, identities are hidden and a good time is ultimately had by all…except for the corpses…in Arsenic and Old Lace.

I hesitate to say more for the benefit of those readers who have not seen either the play or the brilliant 1944 movie directed by Frank Capra and starring Cary Grant. If you don’t know the story it is just too delightful to spoil. If you do know some of the details then it will be like going back for seconds of your favorite ice cream.

Clay Hebert, the director and Officer Klein, is a familiar and welcome face from every stage Lake Charles offers. He has a resume which spans from McNeese's Theater to ACTS, and from Lake Charles Little Theatre to the Bayou Players and independent film productions all over Lake Charles. Clay artfully guides this fairly large cast through the quick draw and fast paced humor of Arsenic, which is to comedy what very dark and deliciously bitter semi-sweet morsels are to chocolate chip cookies, skillfully leading his troupe over that tightrope between horror and humor.

Louis Barrilleaux, another talented veteran of ACTS, LCLT and McNeese for over 20 years, is Mortimer, the eye around which this storm circulates.

Kelly Rowland and Sarah Broussard, respectively as Martha and Abbey Brewster, age themselves convincingly 50 years to play Mortimer’s adorably naive and unassuming aunts whose home is the site for some rather….unexpected events. Both ladies have degrees in performance, Kelly in music and Sarah in theater, with a wide and diverse range of acting credits.

Rebecca Harris, an actress with an impressive resume, is Mortimer’s confused but stalwart fiancee.

Aaron Webster, a self-described reluctant actor, is eminently creepy as Jonathan, the ne'er-do-well prodigal brother.

Brahnsen Lopez, another stage veteran, plays Jonathan’s would-be repentant colleague, Dr. Einstein (not Albert).

Matt Dye, local radio personality and frequently cast in small but scene stealing roles, does it again as Teddy.

Mark Hebert, Dusty Duffy, Dylan Conley and Kathy Heath round out the cast with memorable supporting characters.

 

The set is terrific, creating the authentically homey, gentle parlor of two elderly aunts, making the sinister events all the funnier for the contrast, complete with two sets of stairs and a landing up and through which Teddy has the freedom to charge with abandon, a window seat which can house…various and sundry… and French doors through which the characters are free to pop in and out.

I was privileged to interview Diki Jines, master electrician on the set and will have his interview clips up shortly below, talking about the set, its design and a little background.

Timing and blocking are very key, especially in this comedy of terrors and Clay has the tempo and coordinated actions and responses wound like a Swiss Cuckoo clockwork.

It’s a joy to watch a stage full of such talented veterans work smoothly together, and the fact most are old friends and/or fellow thespians, who have trod the boards often together, helps catalyze the chemistry that makes this play full of intimately connected characters work. These performers know each others’ rhythms and make the most of their considerable pool of experience to bring us a delightful evening of fun and fright, chills and chuckles, comedy and carnage, shocks and snickers, jocularity and jump scares.

So go warm up — or chill out — in anticipation of Halloween at ARSENIC AND OLD LACE. But be sure to BYOW. (Bring your own wine.)

BUY TICKETS HERE, OR CALL (337) 433-2287

UNCLE DREW – SURPRISINGLY GOOD SPORTS FILM BASED ON A PEPSI COMMERCIAL

SHORT TAKE:

Charming and gentle, entertaining, though formulaic, sports comedy about the value of family and respect for an elderly generation with much to teach, set on the basketball court.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Young teens and up, or anyone with a lively enthusiasm for basketball, as long as parents go with them to caution against the good natured smack talk and the fact one of the protagonists begins the movie living with his very unpleasant girlfriend.

LONG TAKE:

My expectations were not high for Uncle Drew. After all, it was based upon a series of Pepsi advertisements masquerading as faux infomercials about an elderly retired basketball player who goes to different street courts to surprise the neighborhood kids with his skilled prowess and spread his sage advice on the game.

The fact that the elderly man is actually a young active professional ball player in prosthetic makeup makes the shorts seem more like Candid Camera stunts than any legitimate effort to convey life experience advice to a younger generation of basketball players.

However, in approaching the movie, Uncle Drew, I felt there was a glimmer of hope, as the entire Pirates of the Caribbean franchise was created with checkerboard success from the ephemeral beginnings of a singular feature in a Disney theme park ride. But, then again, I was also aware of the pathetic sequel failures Disney has milked out of that dying series.

So it was much to my surprise that I discovered Uncle Drew is a lovely, charming, entertaining, fairly family friendly movie for  teens and up, directed by Charles Stone, thoughtfully written, acted to the best of the performers' abilities, and espousing a number of admirable virtues. The Pepsi commercials were written by Kyrie Irving but the screenplay was written by Jay Longino who does an excellent job of creatng a smart and warm story.

The premise of Uncle Drew concerns Dax (Lil Rey Howery who steals the show in both Get Out and Tag), an enthusiastic, and overly optimistic, coach of a street basketball team, who spends his life savings outfitting and entering his team, Harlem's Money, into the Rucker Park Tournament, a tournament now known as the Entertainer's Basketball Classic. The prize money is $100,000 but Dax is more concerned about proving his worth in the game he loves but doesn't feel worthy to play. His long time rival, Mookie (Nick Kroll), steals both his team and his mercenary girlfriend out from under him.

Desperate, Dax discovers Uncle Drew, an elderly but skilled basketball player, on a court during a one-on-one challenge with a young player in an effort to teach this younger generation how basketball should be played. Dax prevails upon/begs Drew to play for him. Drew agrees on the condition that he can choose his own teammates. Dax and Drew proceed to travel around the country in his formerly hippie van picking up his old teammates. The first is Preacher (Chris Webber), aptly named and married to a woman, Betty Lou (Lisa Leslie), who does not wish him to return to the court. Without giving any spoilers here, the scene during the baptism is worth the price of admission alone. And, of course, Preacher, goes anyway. Lights (Reggie Miller) can't see and  Boots (Nate Robinson) is at first confined to a wheelchair. The last is Big Fella (the one the only Shaquille O'Neal) a karate teacher with a grudge against Uncle Drew which will serve as a plot point later in the movie.

Acting as counterpoint to his former girlfriend is Maya (Erica Ash), the granddaughter of Boots who tags along as a gentle and caring companion for her grandfather.

The rest of the movie is a pretty standard, formulaic sports movie of an underdog entering an important competition, confronting old rivals, resolving past conflicts, improving themselves, and becoming more than the sum of their parts or their surface appearance.

This does not take away from the fact that the movie is quite funny, and features opportunities to demonstrate forgiveness, repentance and taking responsibility for sins even when the offenses are decades-old, loyalty, altruism, respect  and appreciation not only for what the elderly can teach us, but for their past experiences and accomplishments, familial bonds, and kindness. There is even a very cute dance off – believably pulled off as older men by these young athletes.

I especially want to note the effort and lengths these young men go to, to portray older men. The acting, while not especially subtle, was obviously taken quite seriously by these basketball players. All took great pains with the makeup and to genuinely convey with dignity and understanding the challenges that elderly people often face physically and emotionally. For example, I read that Nate Robinson, who performed Boots, and who went throughout the first half of the movie as mute and almost immobile, is himself normally an extremely high energy and active person. He portrayed, quite effectively and convincingly, a man who had almost given up on life and himself, until he has the opportunity to work again with friends and do what he loves best.

I also admired the care and detail with which Mr. Irving portrayed his Uncle Drew. Irving, as Uncle Drew, moved convincingly, with the painful care, and conveyed the slow, cautious steps, affected gestures, and challenged movements of an elderly person. The warm ups on the court, as these older men become inspired once again to engage in the game they all love so much, and to watch them slowly blossom on the court, was both believable and inspiring.

Uncle Drew is a credit to its sports genre, and exemplifies the best of what that kind of movie can be and teach in a light-hearted, comedic but respectful way.

My cautions about a minimum age or parent-attended audience, comes primarily from the the fact that the main character lives with his girlfriend instead of being married, and the language, which is really just good-natured smack talk between elderly close friends and former teammates, who chide and tease each other about intimate behaviors.

As always, use parental discretion for younger teens, but if I had a child who was especially fond of basketball, I would accompany them with plans to admonish them about language use, and explain that living together without marriage is wrong and a sin. Otherwise, Uncle Drew is a delightful little film with a lot to commend it, and keeping the provisos in mind, I would definitely endorse it. Pepsi, you did good.