Elderly spinster sisters Abby and Martha Brewster have a secret. They've been poisoning single, old men with arsenic-laced, elderberry wine and burying them in the basement.
BUT IT'S NOT out of malice; they believe they're helping these lonely people who can no longer contribute to society. Then their three nephews find out, and the fun begins.
That's the premise of the classic comedy, "Arsenic and Old Lace," presented by Westfield High, Saturday-Sunday, March 3-4, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, March 5, at 2 p.m. Tickets are $10 at the door or via www.westfieldtheatreboosters.com.
"It features situational comedy, zany characters and good clean humor," said Director Scott Pafumi. "If there were TV in the '40s, this is what you'd see. But it's also a dark comedy with an edge to it — all about timing and the interactions of the characters."
Set in 1941 Brooklyn, the play ran four years on Broadway and, in 1944, Frank Capra directed Cary Grant in the hit movie. Westfield's production has a cast and crew of more than 50, with senior Brian Randall in Grant's role of nephew Mortimer Brewster.
"He's the straight man of the show," said Randall, 18. "He doesn't know what's going on at the beginning, and then he realizes his aunts are killing people and there are 12 bodies in the cellar. He's desperately trying to get control of the situation and he doesn't want his fiancée Elaine to find out. He's trying to keep it all together and, meanwhile, he's losing himself."
Mortimer doesn't approve of what his aunts are doing, but he tries to keep them from being arrested — which isn't easy, since the local police like to drop by and chat with them. Randall says the role's terrific and requires lots of energy.
"IT'S CHALLENGING, but the chemistry with this cast is just awesome," he said. "There are so many funny actors that rehearsing is a lot of fun, and it's great acting with Sammy [Luffy, as Elaine]."
Thinking he might be crazy, too, Mortimer tries to call off his wedding, but Elaine won't let him. "I'm strong and indignant and won't let him do it," said junior Luffy, 16. "It's my first lead [role], so I'm excited to be on stage and experiment with the blocking and how I say my lines. It's a total blast."
She said it's tough balancing rehearsals with AP classes, church and family, but she's glad to get to interact with the other actors and the directing team. Calling the show a farcical comedy, she said many jokes run through the whole play and the cast added lots of physical comedy, too. Said Luffy: "The audience will relate to me and Mortimer as the young lovers, and they'll like the nephews — each with their own quirks."
Senior Ashley Dillard, 17, plays Aunt Abby. "She's not losing her mind as much as Martha; she's the more sensible one," said Dillard. "But she still finds way too much joy in killing old men; she thinks she's helping them out."
Playing such an old character is new for Dillard. For example, she said, "I have to remember that she wouldn't be able to run to the door. But it's lots of fun to be a crazy, old lady. And Mr. Pafumi gives us so much freedom to explore the characters' many features." She also likes working with Reema Samaha who plays Aunt Martha and says the audience will enjoy the show's slapstick humor Westfield incorporated into it.
Senior Samaha, 17, describes her character as senile, but lighthearted and flighty. "She tends to hit on the younger males of the play," said Samaha. "She follows Abby's lead, but gets sidetracked because of her personality."
She, too, likes playing an old, funny, crazy lady and working with Dillard and the rest of the cast. Said Samaha: "The audience will like all the relationships [of the characters]. That really adds to the play."
SPORTING A mustache and pipe, senior Will Quinn, 17, portrays nephew Teddy Brewster who thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt. "He has more than a few loose nuts," said Quinn. "He's not totally there, but everyone plays along with him. He's silly, over-the-top and ridiculous in the way he acts."
Playing him, said Quinn, is an "absolute blast. The part allows for so much creativity in how you pull off the gags. I get an adrenaline rush from doing something I'm not used to doing, and it pushes my boundaries as an actor."
He called the play a "whirlwind" show. "There's never a moment when something's not happening," he said. "It's a fun show, and the audience will like its energy and comedy."
Senior Branson Reese, 17, plays nephew Jonathan Brewster. "He's evil and involved in all sorts of illegal doings," said Reese. "And his accomplice, Dr. Einstein, is a plastic surgeon who changes his face, so he's always on the run."
"But [Jonathan's] kind of pathetic because he seems almost desperate to seem dangerous to his family — probably because they like Mortimer better," continued Reese. "And he's sweet, almost, because he tries so hard to be evil."
Reese loves playing him because he and Chris Ercolano, who plays Einstein, have been best friends since age 3. "So it's a nice way to start wrapping up my senior year," he said. "And it's fun to just embrace the 'sinisterness' of this character [without having to figure out why he's that way]. I get to exorcise my evil demons."
He said the audience will also enjoy this fresh take on a classic tale and how cast and crew gave it "a taste of how Westfield Theater does business."
As stage manager, senior Laura Fraase, 17, keeps track of everything happening in every aspect of the production. "[During rehearsals], I have to know all the blocking, lines and cues," she explained. "And once the show is being performed in front of the audience, Mr. Pafumi will sit back and watch it and I'll be in the tech booth calling sound and light cues."
SINCE SHE'S usually acting, this is a new experience for her, but it's been a good fit. "This job requires leadership and organizational skills, which is why I think Mr. Pafumi gave it to me," said Fraase. "I also have two, really good assistant stage managers, Loralee Rolfe and Kelsey Gaber, who've both helped out a lot."
They came in especially handy, she said, when seniors such as her had to be away for college auditions. She also praised assistant director Tara De Vincenzo who has a great deal of technical experience. Said Fraase: "She's stage managed before, so she's been my guru, teaching me the ways of stage managing."
Technical director Cheryl Cordingley, a 17-year-old senior, heads a crew of 25. She designed the set, is overseeing its construction and is teaching the newer members how to build.
"It's called a box set," she said. "There are three walls, and the fourth wall is the audience. We show the interior of the aunts' house — the living room and some of the dining room — and stairs leading to the upper hallway. We started building it a week ago and things are coming along well."
It'll be two levels of flats, with platforms leading to doors upstairs. Cordingley said it's the first time she's created this type of set and lots of her workers are new to tech. But, she said, "I'm enjoying teaching them and seeing what they can do. And since the last show was a basically horizontal set and this one is mainly vertical, they get a whole, different perspective of how to build different types of sets."
"It'll be an elaborate set and will complement the actors," said Cordingley. "And the way they interact with the set will add to the comedy of the show."