If you poison us, do we not sing?

Way Off Productions presents its original musical based on the classic black comedy ‘Arsenic and Old Lace.’

June 11, 2010 22:00
3 minute read.
A lethal dose of comedy in 'Arsenic.'

arsenic musical 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Sara Halevi, the creative director of Way Off Productions, is excited. Her theater company is starting out with a bang, putting together the world premiere of Arsenic and Old Lace as a musical. Joseph Kesselring’s classic black comedy has been performed countless times around the world since its inception in the early 1930s and was made into a movie in 1944. But Way Off Productions’s musical adaptation of the play provides a unique twist to the already twisted tale of the Brewsters. “Every time a play is produced, every actor provides a fresh interpretation of the character,” says Halevi. “We have our own twists.”

Set in Brooklyn in the 1920s, the story opens with two seemingly harmless elderly sisters, Abby and Martha Brewster, discussing their latest “good deed.” “The two sisters poison old men who are lonely and don’t have families,” explains Halevi. “They put arsenic and cyanide in elderberry wine and kill off these lonely old men as an act of charity and bury them in their basement.”

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They have three nephews. Teddy (Ira Skop) believes he’s Teddy Roosevelt. Jonathan (Dale David Boccaccio Honor) is a sociopath who murdered 12 people for no reason, with his accomplice Dr. Einstein (Michael Cohen). The third nephew is the lead character, Mortimer (David Hilfstein), who is a successful theater critic, recently engaged to Elaine Harper (Sonia Nizny). Mortimer seems to be the only normal character in the Brewster family, desperately trying to cope with the insanity in his midst.

“Mortimer is usually a very composed individual in his life,” says Hilfstein. “But this particular day, so many different things are happening that he loses it. So what you see on stage is Mortimer having a day from hell.”

For Hilfstein, who has been in theater for eight years, this is his first leading comedic role. Last year he was cast as Mark Cohen in the Israeli premiere of Rent. Though he enjoyed his role in the Broadway classic, he says he loves comedy and that the role of Mortimer in Arsenic, the Musical! is perfect for him. “It’s a great comedic role, very physical,” he explains. “Balancing between all the levels of excitement on that day is what makes Mortimer such a fun character to play.”

Adding to the excitement is the musical aspect of this production. Elli Sacks, the composer and lyricist, wrote the songs for Arsenic in 2003-2004. The Way Off adaptation of the play is the first time that one of Sacks’s musical productions is being performed. “A musical suggests a different world,” says Sacks. “You take a scene and go off into a daydream or a heightened sense of reality or (in Arsenic’s case) an even more distorted sense of reality. Whatever you want to bring across, you can be much more exaggerated and really push the boundaries.”

Despite this profound insight into the world of musicals, Sacks and Halevi and the rest of the cast and crew agree that this comedy is light, fun, free of depth and complexity, and perfect for Jerusalem audiences. “This play is one of the purest comedies I’ve ever seen on a stage,” says Halevi. “I rarely do comedy. I much prefer drama because I think bad comedy is a disaster. But this play has so many different types of comedy – clever banter, physical comedy… I think here in Jerusalem, life can get very heavy and it’s refreshing to do something that’s just for fun.”

As much fun as the cast is having, there is also a significant level of seriousness involved in accordance with Way Off’s objective of becoming a large-scale theater company with paid actors. “My goal was to attract more professionals so there would be professional working stage actors in Jerusalem because there are practically none,” claims Halevi.”

In fact, most of Arsenic’s cast is made up of professionals, including Hilfstein who was a professional actor in New York before making aliya, working in various Off-Broadway productions. Nikki Simon (who plays Abby Brewster) has 20 years experience in theater; Alona Cole (Martha Brewster) is a professional singer and recorded an album with Sony-Epic; and Chanan Elias (who plays Witherspoon and Gibbs) is the musical director of the play and has extensive experience in the many fields of showbiz – music, theater, acting, producing, directing.

“We want to get in shape for bigger things,” says Sacks. “We’re looking ideally for a producer who would be willing to take it to a full cast, full set, full production, full band, full orchestra, and hopefully we’ll make it to Broadway. That’s the ultimate dream.”

Arsenic, the Musical! will be playing until June 25 at the AACI in Talpiot. For tickets and details, call (02) 566-1181 or visit http://bit.ly/arsenic2010.

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