'Arsenic' plays on darkness of season; Director calls New Players' version a comedy about family.

Byline: Eric Stanway

FITCHBURG -- Early November might mean an end to the spooky shenanigans endemic to this time of year, but you wouldn't know it from the New Players Theatre Guild, 15 Rollstone St., which will be staging the dark comedy "Arsenic and Old Lace'' at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 7, 8, 14 and 15 and at 2 p.m. Nov. 16. Tickets are $12 for students and senior citizens and $15 for adults.

The play is an old chestnut, written by Joseph Kesselring back in 1939. It originally opened Jan. 10, 1941, and closed on June 17, 1944, racking up an impressive 1,444 performances.

For those unfamiliar with the plot, it essentially goes like this. All of the action centers around the Brewster family, who are descendants of the original passengers on the Mayflower. Over the years, however, something has gone a little wrong with the family, and the larger part of them have degenerated into homicidal lunatics.

As the play opens, Mortimer Brewster, a drama critic, is visiting the Brooklyn domicile of his two spinster aunts, who share their home with a brother, who believes himself to be Theodore Roosevelt. Mortimer's intention to announce his upcoming marriage is quickly squashed by the revelation that his aunts have been poisoning elderly homeless men with tainted elderberry wine. "Teddy,'' meanwhile, has been burying the corpses in the cellar, believing them to be yellow fever victims, having fallen sick during the construction of the Panama Canal.

The plot thickens as Mortimer's brother, Jonathan, shows up at the house, in the company of a plastic surgeon, Dr. Einstein. A botched attempt at a disguise has left Jonathan looking like Boris Karloff. (This is a self-referential joke, as Karloff himself assayed the role in the original production.)

The New Players Theatre Guild production is a first for director Tom Ostrowski, a native of Burlington. New as he is to this group, he's hardly a novice in theatrical circles, having directed for the Theatre Company of Saugus and the Gilbert and Sullivan Players at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He said that it was the play itself that drew him to direct the production.

"It's an incredibly well-written piece,'' he said. "The whole thing is like a playground, really, with everybody just going over the top.''

First off, Mr. Ostrowski disputes the commonly held perception that the play is a dark comedy.

"I don't see it that way at all,'' he said. "I see this as more of a family comedy, one with a weird family...

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