Playwright: Mark Mason. At: InFusion Theatre Company at Strawdog Theater, 3829 N. Broadway. Tickets: 773-528-9696; www.infusiontheatre.com; $25. Runs through: Feb. 3
Joseph Kesselring's Arsenic and Old Lace is a 1941 comedy premised on a pair of elderly spinsters inviting old bachelors to tea, wherewith the most benevolent of motivesthe sisters offer their grateful guests wine laced with poison. A deranged brother who believes himself to be Teddy Roosevelt digging the Panama Canal then disposes of the bodies in the garden.
Mark Mason's play, making its world premiere in this InFusion production, is set in 1944, where Virginia, a hostess at Poughkeepsie's Victory Canteen, is married to her fifth husband, the latest in a marital gallery of GIs stationed at the nearby Air Force base. Her matrimonial compulsion is motivated, not by the widows' benefits she receives after her hubbies die in action, but her wish to provide lonely soldiers with comforting memories of home. The canteen's co-proprietress, Fran, has a record of euthanising wounded casualties, but when her spouse succumbs to a heart attack on their wedding night, the money accumulated by the couple in a government scam does nothing to diminish her grief. Oh, and did I mention that their schemes are facilitated by a mysterious general, whose impaired sanity in no way reduces the powers conferred upon him by his rank?
Oh, all kinds of things can escape undetected in wartimerecruits killed in training exercises whose deaths are later listed as combat fatalities, for exampleand haven't innocent people been known to commit crimes with the best of intentions? An environment combining sex, money and transients is as reliable a formula for noirish drama as for guignol farce. What prevents us enjoying either, however, is the reluctance of author Mason and director Bridgette Harney to decide on a consistent tone for these hijinks. We wait in vain for somebody to tip us a wink, or a sneer, or any clue as to how we are to regard our charming profiteers.
There's no denying the production's atmospheric appeal, with its nostalgic images of ration-book frocks, swing dancing (choreography by Jenna Stworzyjanek) and big-band musicthe latter dispensed by Mallory Nees, playing a variety of radio announcers broadcasting from the world outside David Ferguson's claustrophobic New England tavern. In defiance of this richly-detailed background, though, Harney has instructed her actors to strip their delivery of subtextual revelation, making for ambivalence perhaps meant to provoke controversy, but more likely to inspire only dissatisfied bewilderment.