Jeanne Wayman

Arsenic and Old Lace at Burlington County Footlighters

Just when theatre fans thought the horrors of Halloween had passed. Burlington County Footlighters added a touch of terror to the Thanksgiving season this November. After attending this run of Arsenic and Old Lace, no audience members will be able to complain about spending Turkey Day with the family this year. Your correspondent attended the opening night performance on Friday, November 8th.

First time director Matt Dell’Olio (assisted by A. Robert Basile) presented a dark comedy with a disturbing plot. Elaine Harper (played by Alex Davis), a minister’s daughter, became engaged to the most odious creature this planet has produced since humans evolved out of the primordial ooze. She’d planned on marrying the real-life version of H. P. Lovecraft’s the thing that should not be. Her fiancé, Mortimer Brewster (played by Russell Palmieri) worked as a…gasp… theatre critic.

It says something about the Brewster family that a dramatic critic served as its paragon of normalcy. Showing outstating imagination, playwright Joseph Kesselring ensured that one did.

Mortimer’s spinster aunts, Abby Brewster (Susan Dewey) and Martha Brewster (Jeanne Wayman), killed a dozen people. His brother Teddy (Benjamin Couey) believed himself to be Theodore Roosevelt. His other brother Jonathan (Daniel McDevitt) was a serial killer with ambition. He aspired to kill more people than his aunts did.

Mortimer’s realization that no amount of chlorine could cleanse this gene pool caused him to contemplate ending his engagement. At the same time, he attempted to keep his aunts’ macabre hobby from law enforcement. The latter became difficult due to the many visits from police officers (Mark Henley, Tyler Conklin Jeffrey Rife and Nanci Cope). They seemed to spend as much time at the Brewster home as the family did. Mortimer also struggled not to become the latest statistic in Jonathan’s quest.

As one can discern from the plot summary, performer Russell Palmieri had a busy evening playing Mortimer. Mr. Palmieri balanced his facial expressions so they displayed terror, but always with a touch of humor. His best occurred when performer Nanci Cope explained that her character (Officer O’Hara) was a playwright. His reaction to her narrative showed more perturbation than when on the receiving end of Jonathan’s and Dr. Einstein’s (Kori Rife) machinations.

Daniel McDevitt played an outstanding villain in the form of Jonathan. His character may not have liked the comparison to Boris Karloff, but his voice reminded this reviewer of Bobby “Boris” Pickett. His addition of a malevolent tone to his deep baritone made listening to him more enjoyable.

Kori Rife played a terrific sidekick to him as Dr. Einstein. She expressed her lines in a German accent that was easy to understand.

Susan Dewey and Jeanne Wyman made the Brewster sisters’ murderous mayhem witty. Both performers used soft voices when calmly discussing the killings. They maintained the same facial expressions one would use when describing something as benign as the weather. Their deliveries and mannerisms enhanced the comedy in Mr. Kesselring’s script brilliantly.

Footlighters legend Alex Davis added her histrionic talents to the ensemble; as did Footlighters newcomers Ron Brining and Benjamin Couey.

The production team included Stage Manager Will Nelson, Producer Dennis Dougherty, Costumers Amanda Cogdell and Leslie Romanuski.

This production of Arsenic and Old Lace was unique in that two of the best set designers in South Jersey were involved in the project. Jeff Rife opted to forgo working on set design in this one, however, instead focusing on his acting. He played the dual roles of Mr. Gibbs and Lieutenant Rooney. Footlighters’ sublime set specialist, Jim Frazer, handled the set design.

For this show, Mr. Frazer placed a window at stage right that led to an opening outside the Brewster home. It appeared realistic and served its functional purpose by allowing for Mr. McDevitt and Ms. Rife to climb through it.

The set included a real staircase that led to a landing. There it turned a full 90 degrees leading to an upper balcony. In addition to the aesthetic appeal it also served a practical use. Multiple performers climbed it during the show. Benjamin Couey utilized it throughout the evening as his character led imaginary troops into combat.

To borrow one of Teddy’s favorite phrases, theatre fans should “chaaaaarrrrge” to Burlington County Footlighters. After watching this killer comedy, audiences won’t feel quite as disturbed by eccentric relatives at Thanksgiving Dinner: unless they happen to be theatre critics. Everyone will still avoid the elderberry wine, though.

Arsenic and Old Lace runs through November 23rd at Burlington County Footlighters. After that, it succumbs to community theatre’s version of “yellow fever” and will rest in one of the metaphorical locks at Teddy’s Panama Canal.

Crossing Delancey at Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage

Vas mir. I thought I’d go meshuga when I read the glossary in the playbill. Crossing Delancey contained a host of Yiddish expressions. I felt like a schmendrik after spending my gelt to listen to dialog containing words I wouldn’t understand. Then the show started. As I heard the machers and yentas tzimis about a shadkhin the story’s zees keit moved me. Curiously, it also happened to contain the most comprehensible language I’d heard all day. F’shtast? Well, you would if you’d witnessed the show at Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage.

Torben Christiansen made his directorial debut March 23rd with this romantic comedy. He explained to me that he “saw the show” a couple of years ago and “loved it.” The next day he contacted Footlighters. He asked for the chance to bring this Susan Sandler piece to their stage.

A full house attended the opening night performance. Both the audience and the company were delighted with what Mr. Christiansen did with the opportunity.

Crossing Delancey presented the story of an unconventional love triangle. Isabelle (or Izzy, played by Erin Bell) developed a crush on her favorite author, Tyler Moss (Ricardo Esteves). The latter frequented the bookstore where she worked. As she found the courage to pursue him, a complication ensued.

Her Bubbie (or grandmother, played by Susan Dewey) contacted a shadkhn (a marriage broker) named Hannah (performed by Jeanne Wayman). She tried to set Izzy up with a pickle salesman named Sam (Buddy Deal). Izzy found her affections torn between the sophisticated author and the traditional Jewish boy. A series of comical and moving scenes resulted.

Erin Bell portrayed the different aspects of Izzy’s personality with equal skill. She played a bookworm overcome by infatuation in her scenes with Mr. Esteves. When performing with Ms. Dewey, she became the dutiful granddaughter. Through her interactions with Mr. Deal she developed Izzy into a mature woman.

Ms. Bell presented her lines in a genuine New York accent. Her facial expressions enhanced her dialog very well.

Susan Dewey turned in stellar performance as the grandmother, or Bubby. She also spoke in a credible accent, sounding like a true New Yorker. She conveyed the character’s love for Izzy and genuine interest in her happiness. The way she feigned not recognizing Sam at the end of the play brought the right amount of humor to a tender moment.

The playwright gave Ms. Dewey’s character the play’s best lines. I liked the conviction with which she delivered: “loneliness is a disease.”

Buddy Deal brought immense depth to the role of Sam. He delivered his lines in a soft spoken manner allowing the power of Ms. Sandler’s words their full impact. A steady stream of “awwwww”s from the house followed his attempts to woo Izzy. I’ve never witnessed a performer draw that kind of reaction from a crowd. The women in the audience swooned over his performance.

The same audience remained silent when Sam’s romantic rival performed one scene wearing nothing but a bath towel. I guess that proves it really is all in the delivery, guys.

Ricardo Esteves played a superb villain. Through both his manner of speech and gestures, he captured the essence of the character’s arrogance and egotism. I applaud his portraying the base aspects of Tyler’s personality while still keeping the role funny.

Mr. Esteves and Ms. Bell performed the most comical love scene in the history of theatre. In enacting one of Izzy’s fantasies, they expressed their feelings for one another in the book store. They did so in an exaggerated way that made it hysterical. It impressed me that they could enact the scene without laughing or even smiling.

Jeanne Wayman really got into the role of Hannah, the marriage arranger. When she made her entrance she handed out cards to the ladies in the audience. Ms. Wayman brought a lot of passion to the role. I enjoyed her first attempt to interest Izzy in Sam.

Mr. Christiansen explained that he wanted to get the best people for this show. This cast displayed great chemistry working together. They also stood out as individuals. It’s tough to find a better combination than that.

Footlighters utilizes the 2nd Stage theatre for smaller scale productions. Crossing Delancey developed into a more high tech spectacle than I expected at that venue. I credit Jim Frazer and Mr. Christiansen for their work on the set. They designed both the kitchen and the book store sections very well. Tim Sagges and Valerie Brothers managed the lights and sound flawlessly.

Some audiences may not be familiar with the Yiddish expressions, but all theatregoers will recognize Crossing Delancey’s themes. Who can’t empathize with a character torn between infatuation and a sweet person with a good heart? Not to mention receiving pressure from family to get married. We can all understand those situations. Zie ge zunt. The show runs through March 31st.