Arsenic and Old Lace
|by Joseph Kesselring
Reviewed by ‘Mortimer Brewster’
As the years pass my memories of the events that took place in Brooklyn, 1941 are fading. Yet as I watched Haxby Players re-telling the story of those dark days – the full horror came flooding back. They called it “Arsenic and Old Lace” by Joseph Kesselring, a black comedy, directed by Andrew Love to record audiences with full houses for three out of four nights.
I , Mortimer Brewster Austin Barnett was a young successful theatre critic living in New York but could never be away from home for long. Abby and Martha Brewster Sheila Lamb and Pam Frank were the warmest people I knew, they attended church, helped the needy, the sick and the poor, they helped the children and I heard they helped the lonely from time to time. I was also very much in love with Elaine, Perri Barley daughter of Reverend Dr Harper, Nick Hall the local minister and neighbour.
On the fateful night, I remember Elaine and I, we were going together to Theatre, as I was due to review the play “Murder Will Out”. I had just proposed to Elaine and she’d left to tell her father, Aunt Martha and Aunt Abby were very excited with the news and went to prepare some form of celebration. Whilst alone in the living room where I discovered a dead body in the window seat. My immediate thoughts flashed to Teddy, Ron Jevons my brother. Teddy had for many years believed he was President Roosevelt (although he had tried others on for size), I knew he dug holes in the cellar – ‘locks’ for the Panama canal. Now he had gone one step further – murder.
I told my aunts of the heartbreaking discovery. It was then that my world was devastated. They not only knew they also carefully corrected me in my assumption. It was not Teddy’s doing – it was one of their gentleman, a Mr Hoskins, they had poisoned in some sort of charitable mercy killing. I had stood in utter shock but yet the worse was to come. They made their own brew of elderberry wine, with arsenic, strychnine and a pinch of cyanide. Mr Gibbs Peter Major had a lucky escape as I threw him out before he drank their ‘delicious’ elderberry wine. The cellar had eleven more bodies buried in marked graves, all poisoned bar one – who apparently died naturally and started the ball rolling. Teddy’s ‘locks’ apparently being put to good use. Teddy deluded believed he had been burying yellow fever victims.
Trying to remain in control of the situation, I remember arranging to meet up with a lawyer and had set off to the theatre alone. I felt I was in a downward spiral. What I didn’t know was that journey had just begun.
I now know that Jonathan, Tom Kelly my other brother, had arrived at the family home just after I had left, with Dr. Einstein Robin Sanger, an alcoholic ostracised plastic surgeon. My Aunt’s failed to recognise Jonathon at first, as Dr Einstein, had “fixed Chonny, real good!” whilst drunk and having just seen a Boris Karlov movie. Jonathan had left Brooklyn (by request) when he was young and by most accounts (mainly Jonathans) he had travelled the world. His return was not exactly planned; Jonathan was on the run, having escaped a correction facility for the criminally insane. How or when he had met with Dr. Einstein, I do not know but they had been accomplices for many years. Jonathan needed some where for the Dr to re-fix his face. My Aunt’s had tried to get Jonathan to leave but were intimidated enough to let him stay the night. My Aunt’s went to bed, giving Jonathan and the doctor the opportunity to bring in their own dead body – a Mr Spenalzo who had unfortunately offered them a lift. He had also unfortunately told Jonathan he reminded him of Boris Karlov. Jonathan was always a sensitive child. I didn’t know then how Elaine had got involved, she told me years later that she had gone over to the house because she thought they were burglars. By the time I arrived back, I was greeted by an hysterical Elaine, my Aunt’s dressed in black preparing for the funeral of their Mr Hoskins and two men I didn’t recognise at all.
Having realised it was Jonathan I was keen to get him out. Primarily so he would not find out about Mr Hoskins and secondly he scared me. For a short while I was left alone with Elaine. By now I had decided that, due to the fact that all my family were without exception totally insane and it was only a matter of time before it manifested in me, I was not going to marry her. However, before I could explain my self fully I discovered Mr Spenalzo in the window seat. Apparently Teddy had already taken Mr Hoskins to Panama and this had left room for the new arrival. Having persuaded Elaine to go home I set about challenging my Aunts and Jonathan. A passing policeman, Officer O’Hara, Nick Hall having seen lights on in the house interrupted the proceedings and I could only get rid of him by promising to go and listen to his play, twelve years in the making.
Whilst I was away Jonathan discovered that My Aunts had twelve bodies in the cellar and was quite put out when the doctor pointed out that he had only killed twelve himself. Keen to better his number he lay in wait for my return. By now I had come to the conclusion the only way to protect my Aunts was to get Teddy committed. I didn’t predict, thought that I would end up tied to a chair, gagged waiting for Jonathan to torture and kill me. My saviour was Teddy who during the night decided to call a cabinet meeting, which he heralded by blowing his bugle, which in turn attracted Officer O’Hara. When I say saved this is only half true, O’Hara finding me tied and gagged, took the opportunity to relate his play to me. Seven hours later other policemen, Officer Brophy Lee Harris and Lieutenant Rooney Chris Rawsonsearching for the missing O’Hara, finally released me from this new and dastardlier form of torture. Rooney being a switched on sort of guy recognised Jonathan and had him arrested, although Einstein got away!
By now it was morning and Mr Witherspoon, Colin MacDonaldthe superintendent of Happy Dale Sanatorium arrived to meet Teddy and actually ended up, with my help, committing my Aunts as well. They were very happy to go with Teddy; I guess he was always their favourite. Jonathan nasty to the end, and unable to make anyone believe that the cellar now contained thirteen bodies went with out much of a fight. He seemed happy that the Aunts could not possibly better his total body count. I had left the house by then, with Elaine. I heard that Mr Witherspoon had never returned to Happy Dale. Though no one missed him, they say he had no family and was quite lonely.
At Happy Dale Teddy, believing his term of office was over, went on to explore most of Africa and retired to a lake side cabin to fish until he passed on.
Aunt Martha and Aunt Abby continued their charitable work at Happy Dale.
Jonathan became so neurotic because no one would believe his story ended his days in a padded cell.
I never knew what became of Dr Einstein. However, I once heard of a beauty consultant who spoke with a German accent working in Beverly Hills.
O’Hara funded, produced and directed his play. It ran for one night. Well actually it ran until the first interval.
Brophy became a priest.
Rooney went on to become Chief of NYPD.
The Brewster House mysteriously burnt to the ground and a children’s playground was built on the site in memory of the Brewster Sisters.
Elaine and I lived…………..well that’s another story.
Haxby Players did a fantastic job of telling this story. The nearly full houses laughed and applauded from start to finish. The set was superb. Andy (to his friends) Love did a fine piece of work with a very good script. It should have run and run.
New York Times 1940-1945