Arsenic & Old Lace – the Malta production

Hailed as one of the greatest screwball comedies ever made, Arsenic & Old Lace is finally being staged by MADC in Malta later this month.  Joe Depasquale, who will be playing the role of Jonathan Brewster, gave me some insights about his role in the production.

Arsenic & Old Lace is the one production that gets avid theatre-goers going “aaaaah” in indulgent tones. Much like The Mousetrap (although a totally different genre) it is considered as one of the bastions of old-school theatrical productions. When it first opened, the West End hit ran for 1,337 performances. Difficult to please critics gushed: “Arsenic and Old Lace kept audience roaring with laughter.” Theater Arts told us. “It was so funny that none of us will ever forget it.” the New York Times continued.

The play is a farcical black comedy revolving around Mortimer Brewster (Edward Mercieca), a drama critic who must deal with his crazy, homicidal family and local police in the Bronx, New York as he debates whether to go through with his recent promise to marry the woman he loves.

Mortimer’s family includes two spinster aunts (played by Polly March and Marylu Coppini) who have taken to murdering lonely old men by poisoning them with a glass of home-made elderberry wine laced with arsenic, strychnine and “just a pinch” of cyanide; a brother (Colin Fitz) who believes he is Teddy Roosevelt and digs locks for the Panama Canal in the cellar of the Brewster home (which then serve as graves for the aunts’ victims); and a murderous brother called Jonathan  (Joe Depasquale) who submits to cosmetic surgery in order to disguise his identity. The surgery is performed by his alcoholic accomplice , Dr Einstein,  who also happens to be  a German Nazi. Following surgery, Jonathan winds up looking like horror-film actor Boris Karloff in one of the most successful self-referential jokes in theatre ever; the part was in fact originally played by Karloff. Interestingly, Dr Einstein’s character is based on real-life gangland surgeon Joseph Moran.

Joe Depasquale told me what to expect from the homicidal maniac Jonathan Brewster.

“Jonathan is completely bi-polar, going from scheming and charming to murderous rage at the flip of a switch. Quite possibly his is the darkest character in the play. Personally I think the biggest challenge to this role is actually managing to identify when the mood swings occur. In some situations it’s very obvious, but in others… not so much. Getting the timing right is essential. And then, of course, there’s the issue of managing to portray those moods properly.”

Joe believes that although the humour is extremely dark, this will not put off people as the style remains extremely well-rounded and he believes no-one will fail to see the funny side. Critics and audiences world-wide seem to share Joe’s view so far. One of the characters, besides that of Jonathan, that he feels has strong viewer appeal is that of Officer O’Hara.

“He’s so clueless despite everything that is going on around him. That alone is enough to put people in hysterics.”

Having one of the plum roles in a production that has been so celebrated, Joe admits that he has spent some time in researching, seeing how other actors before him have interpreted the role. And then, of course, there is the whole Boris Karloff issue – the very first actor to play the role, the iconic Karloff became considered as “the” role.

“However, despite doing the odd spot of browsing to see how everyone else went about it, at the end of the day I’d rather give my own interpretation. As for Boris Karloff’s influence, given that the theatrical community has taken his portrayal very much on board and the role is nowadays pretty much based on the actor, it’s difficult to avoid that. Audiences now expect the person interpreting Jonathan’s role to look like Karloff so yes, I did get the make-up artist happily pouring hot glue on my face to create the infamous Karloff scars, but I think that’s as far as it will go.”

Joe tells me that he feels the production is a timeless one and this explains its enduring popularity; the concept behind it can be applied to anyone, anywhere. He continues to explain that most people have a favourite aunt or grandmother whom we could never imagine would harm a fly.

“Now imagine that favourite aunt or grandmother is actually killing people and burying them in the cellar. What would our reaction be?”

Compare to modern-day “thriller/comedy” scripts, the production definitely relies a lot less on blood and gore.

“It seems that as time goes by, the more graphic the scripts get. I think this is because nowadays it takes a lot more to shock people.”

Joe’s own personal style of humour couldn’t be more difficult than that we find in Arsenic & Old Lace. He tells me that he loves puns and loves “watching people close their eyes and groan” when he cracks a particularly bad one. Amongst his favourite commedians he counts Billy Connelly, mainly due to the way the actor has of turning any situation into a funny one and squeezing the laughs out of people.

“Timing is the key to everything in comedy. Well, you also need a story that keeps people interested, of course, too. But without the timing you have nothing. Mind you, some styles of humour I just don’t get – mainly the slapstick sort, where you have people falling down stairs, toilets exploding, that sort of thing…”

Joe first got involved in the theatre scene when, as a teenager, he took part in some musicals to raise money for charity. Life got in the way, as it tends to do, of his furthering this involvement until recently, when he rediscovered this passion. Most memorable on-stage mishap that he’s not likely to forget in a hurry is related to the Monster Burlesque Cruise which was held some months ago:

“Our sketch was supposed to end with me getting stabbed. On the last night, due to a slight miscalculation (not on my part, may  I add), I ended up getting stabbed for real. Nothing but a scratch in truth but my fellow thespian still gets all apologetic when I remind her that she stabbed me. And I remind her often. Yes, I’m horrible, I know,” he concludes with a chuckle.

Joe mentions that a dream role he’d like to take on in the future would be that of Arthur Kipps in The Woman in Black, simply because he loved the story and views horror as a challenge. He’d love to see more family-based productions happening in Malta and believes people would be more keen on attending theatrical events if they could go with the entire family.

“It would also help develop the theatre culture in the children. I really think there needs to be more family entertainment,” he concludes.

Arsenic & Old Lace will run at the Manoel Theatre on April 20, 21, 22, 27, 28 and 29.  For reservations contact the box office on 2124 6389 or on This interview was published on The TV Guide (Times of Malta).