Stage Reviews: DTC’s ‘Arsenic & Old Lace,’ Uptown Players’ ‘Thank You for Being a Friend’

THINGS TO DO WITH A BANANA | Coarse but funny, ‘Thank You for Being a Friend’ forces its humor down your throat. There are worse things it could force down your throat.

Broad comedy

Pick your poison: Camp in sitcomland or two B’way pros hamming it up. Either way, you win

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

There are two sets of Golden Girls trodding the boards this week — though of very different ilks.

In one corner, Dallas Theater Center’s star-powered Arsenic & Old Lace (with Broadway vets Tovah Feldshuh and Betty Buckley) turns the chestnut-roasted Depression-Era dark comedy into a hilariously overplayed farce. At the same time, Uptown Players, the usual Kalita residents, have hightailed it into the Rose Room for Thank You for Being a Friend, another of their drag-based parodies, this time skewering The Golden Girls.

On the surface, the two shows have little in common. For one, Arsenic is actually well-written. Joseph Kesselring’s play has become such an institution, it’s easy to forget how subversive and smart it can be even as it revels in a gimmick: That two sweet ol’ ladies are actually well-intentioned serial killers of lonely widowers. (Dexter owes it a huge debt.) Thank You is nowhere close to that in its construction. Its vulgarity can be acute even for the most adult tastes. (Bea, Rue and Estelle are probably rolling over in their graves; it might send Betty to hers.)

But they do share a lot, to wit: Masterful comic timing and the ability to take the material — about post-menopausal broads — into fun recesses of your humor cortex.

Feldshuh and Buckley play off each other nicely as sisters Abby and Martha, who slip poison into the elderberry wine of pensioners who have no family. Their nephew Mortimer (Lee Trull, rubbery and perpetually astonished) discovers their, umm, “personal business” and tries to work out a way to stop them and keep them from the gas chamber.

Feldshuh, responsible for more mugging than Central Park on New Year’s Eve, has a pixieish energy that’s impossible not to get caught up in, and Buckley’s dotty cluelessness is a hoot. They are matched for comic clarity by Nehal Joshi as a quack doctor and the impressively imposing Jason Douglas as a Karloff-like villain.

But as much as the cast, the real star is Anna Louizos’ magnificent set, a rotating behemoth of Addams Family formidability that is practically its own character. That makes three grandes dames who deserve a bow.

There are four ladies vying for attention in Thank You; we’ll call that one a draw as well. Riffing on Golden Girls — renamed Dorothea (a basso profundo Lon D. Barrera, who still doesn’t sound butch enough … kidding), Roz (Chris Robinson), Blanchet (Michael D. Moore) and Sophie (John de los Santos) — it’s a trifle sitcom plot about a “girls vs. the gays” talent competition against Lance Bass (Drew Kelly), crammed full of more sex jokes than you could shake a stick at. (There’s one they can use.)

Crass? Most definitely. But also surprisingly hilarious. It helps that the production is staged inside a gay bar, where the audience seems primed to have a camptastic time. But honestly, it’s the cast that elevates the material with fearless performances (how do they keep referring to their singing group, Vaginal Discharge, without cracking up?) and loads of stage business that overcomes the script’s many weaknesses.

Director B.J. Cleveland gives the parody elements (showtunes, Beyonce videos, Joan Crawford) their due and let’s everyone have fun with it. High art? Only if you toke one up beforehand. I’m not saying you should or shouldn’t, but it’s not necessary. The laughs here are golden, girl.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition Feb. 18, 2011.

—  John Wright