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LETTERS TO EDITOR
The Man Who Came to Dinner
Okay, so it is somewhat dated with neither the stated or the veiled references to celebrities circa 1939 likely to mean much to young theater audiences. What's more, as lavishly produced as it is, the comedy takes off rather sluggishly. But hang in there.
There's still plenty of fun left in the situation that develops when a dinner party for a visiting celebrity, Sheridan Whiteside (Nathan Lane) turns from social coup for Mr. and Mrs. Stanley (Linda Stephens and Terry Beaver doing a bang-up job as the small town, upper crust hosts), to nightmare, when the guest has an accident on their doorstep and becomes a demanding, invasive longterm houseguest -- along with his secretary Maggie Cutler (Harriet Harris, adorably resurrecting all the 1930s working gal types) and the harried Miss Preen (Mary Catherine Wright, as the sheep in nurse's white).
As Whiteside takes over most of his hapless hosts' home and we meet the assorted locals and a steady stream of eccentric visitors, the play gains altitude, especially during the third act. That's when Whiteside's machinations to keep Maggie from leaving him for Bert Jefferson, the local newspaper editor (the attractive and likeableHank Stratton) even as he urges the Stanley children (Zach Shaffer and Julie Boyd) to pursue their own dreams come to a head and the plot soars to screwball comedy heights. (Since the company's new home is the old Selwyn Theatre, newly renamed the American Airline Theater, the flying allusions are irresistible). >
From his opening, "I may vomit", Nathan Lane lands Whiteside's many hilarious insults with his usual perfect timing, With his shoe polish slick hair and satin lounging jackets (a different one for each act) he passes for a reasonable facsimile of the abrasive character created by Monty Wooley on screen as well as stage. Yet, except for some scenes when he doesn't say anything at all, and during the bit when he and Banjo (Lewis J. Stadlen) plan to save Maggie's romance, Lane fails to project the mix of pomposity, urbanity and wit that the role demands. As a result this Man Who Came to Dinner is an excellent ensemble piece, with the lead ushering in numerous showy cadenzas.
The very best of these star turns come from Byron Jennings and Lewis J. Stadlen. Jennings, last seen as an elegant and serious British politico in Waste reveals a true flair for comedy as a thinly disguised Noël Coward character named Beverly Carlton who sits dow at the Stanley's baby grand for a priceless rendering of Cole Porter's "What Am I to Do " (It would be fun to see Jennings and Lane switch roles on an occasional evening). Mr. Stadlen's Banjo, is an amazing amalgm of Groucho, Harpo and Chico Marx, plus a hefty dash of Jimmy Durante (who played Banjo in the film!). Too bad, these characters are on for such a short part of the time. An even briefer appearance is made by Stephen De Rosa as the Albert Einstein-like Professor Metz the bearer of the already mentioned cockroach "city. "
The juiciest female part belongs to Jean Smart. She lives up to her name as the glamorous , social climbing Lorraine Sheldon. And she looks every bit the late 30s vamp! But than what else would one expect from William Ivey Long who has dressed Ms. Smart and everyone else in eye-popping costumes, that reflect the fashions of the times from the women's pert hats to the toes of their stylish shoes.
The more low key Maggie Cutler is played with endearing vulnerability by Harriet Harris. One of my other favorites was Mary Catherine Wright's long-sufferingering Miss Preen, especially when she tenders her resignation and tells Whiteside "If Florence Nightingale had ever nursed you, she would have married Jack the Ripper instead of founding the Red Cross."
I could name a few others, but you get the idea. Instead, a word about Tony Walton's clever set. Walton's set satirizes upwardly mobile mid-Americans' conspicuous consumption with a house that's over elaborate, and then tips an admiring hat to the gorgeously renovated Selwyn Theatre-- oops, I mean American Air Lines Theatre. The colors, the ceilings, the carved moldings -- all are mirror images of the elegantly restored space.
On the subject of the theater itself, unlike its neighbor, the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, the Roundabout's new hom3 has no pictures or dioramas of airplanes. Of course, those ushers' outfits do lead you to anticipate an announcement about how to use safety equipment instead of turning off your cellular devices. It really is quite beautiful though, and, oh, yes, there are plenty of bathrooms.
The play made a star of Monty Wooley who reprised his role in the move in which Bette Davis played the scretary and Ann Sheridan, the vampishy actress. It remains a video best renter and seller and is available in our bookstore: The Man Who Came to Dinner: VHS Video
Previous Kaufman and Hart collaboration reviewed at ToCurtainUp:
You Can't Take it With You
Once In a Life Time (Toronto)
Kaufman also collaborated with a variety of other writers writers:
June Moon with Ring Lardner
Merton of the Movies with Marc Connelly (LA)
The Royal Family with Edna Ferber (Berkshires)
For reviews of plays in which Kaufman and Hart flew solo (forgive me, but that American Airlines logo makes airline jargon addictive!) The Butter and Egg Man by Kaufman
Light Up the Sky by Moss Hart -- the final production of the Williamstown Theatre Festival's summer 2000 season (to be reviewed)