For sheer timeless comedy, there are few plays better than The Man Who Came To Dinner, Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s hilarious love letter to owlish American theater critic Alexander Woollcott (1887 – 1943), whose many eccentric qualities helped shape the character of the esteemed Sheridan Whiteside, the central figure in the play. The Man Who Came To Dinner was the hit of the 1939 season, a bright spot in an increasingly troubled world that saw Germany invade Poland while the play was being readied for its premiere that October. It enjoyed a two-year run on Broadway and has been a staple in community theaters ever since. The Man Who Came To Dinner continues through January 12 at the intimate Lonny Chapman Theatre in North Hollywood and is well worth the trip.
The Chapman Theatre’s house company, The Group Rep, has put together a cast of veteran performers who know their parts well. Leading the way is the brilliant Jim Beaver as Whiteside: impatient, rude, and obnoxious, but capable of gestures of sentimentality and kindness as well as childishness (Woollcott was known to lapse into infantile mannerisms, and Hart and Kaufman made sure to include a few of them.) At the end of Act I, delighted with himself over his mischievous treachery, Whiteside sings “I’m just a widdle wabbit in the sunshine,” one of many actual childish chants that pervaded the droll atmosphere at New York’s Algonquin Hotel’s famous Roundtable get-togethers, which featured many of Manhattan’s dangerously literary wits. (These encounters were uproariously described by Harpo Marx in his wonderful autobiography, Harpo Speaks!)
In the story, Sheridan Whiteside is invited for dinner by Ernest Stanley, a well-to-do factory owner in the small town of Mesalia, Ohio, but after slipping on a patch of ice, he is ordered by his doctor to be confined in the house until he recovers. It is the week before Christmas, but Whiteside proceeds to take over the entire downstairs of the house, along with Miss Preen, his frantic nurse, and Maggie Cutler, his faithful secretary. Whiteside snobbishly has no use for underlings like Miss Preen, who returns his disdain with equally withering glares. Kay Cole, who originated the role of Maggie in Broadway’s production of A Chorus Line, is marvelous as Miss Preen.
Like Woollcott, Sheridan Whiteside (known as “Sherry” to his friends), is not a bad sort, despite being pompous, arrogant, conceited, and insufferable, but he treats his friends like royalty, and when prankish movie comedian Banjo (based on Harpo Marx) calls, his mood brightens considerably, Whiteside exploding with a guffaw that could be heard clear to New York. As Whiteside, Jim Beaver is able to change his mood as quickly as a weather vane in a crosswind, and he is totally believable as the wheelchair-bound curmudgeon. Beaver is especially good in his one-sided phone conversations, making us believe there really was someone on the other end of the line.
The large cast consists of members of the Stanley household and various friends who come to visit the disabled critic, plus sundry radio technicians, who arrive to broadcast Whiteside’s regularly scheduled address, and various other eccentric types. The play’s subplot involves a budding courtship between secretary Maggie, played with great likability by Hartley Powers, and local journalist Bert Jefferson, played by Mark Stancato, much to the chagrin of Whiteside, who fears he will lose his girl Friday forever. As he recovers, Whiteside plots to break up the relationship by calling on homewrecking diva Lorraine Sheldon (in a terrific, over-the-top performance by Susan Priver), a character based on Broadway icon Gertrude Lawrence, to vamp Jefferson into submission.
In the meanwhile, the household is in a constant state of disarray as Whiteside’s befuddled physician, Dr. Bradley (Fox Carney), attempts to get Whiteside to read his voluminous manuscript while the Stanleys try, without success, to deal with their own domestic problems in the face of Whiteside’s petulant demands.
Two of Whiteside’s celebrity visitors result in the show’s funniest scenes. One comes when famed English playwright and actor Beverly Carlton (based on Noel Coward) shows up. Effusively played by Chris Winfield, Carlton, whose vocabulary and ego are even more expansive than Whiteside’s, is inveigled by Maggie to imitate an English lord proposing to her on the phone, for the purpose of coaxing Lorraine out of the house. In the process, Winfield sings the show’s only song, the splendid and charming “What Am I To Do,” which was written especially for the show by Cole Porter.
In the other scene, mischievous Banjo arrives, who proceeds to cause comic mayhem at every turn. In a cast loaded with professional talent, the brilliant Barry Pearl upstages everyone with his non-stop physical antics as Banjo. Although his character is loosely based on Harpo Marx, Pearl plays him like a demented Red Skelton on speed, making his entrance in a Crazy Guggenheim hat, toting a struggling Miss Preen. There isn’t a moment where Pearl isn’t doing something hilarious, such as confiscating a cream puff meant for the sweet-toothed Whiteside and proceeding to destroy it, and his face, simultaneously. Pearl even takes the mundane action of seating himself on a sofa and turning it into an Olympic event, jumping up in the air and landing neatly on the sofa in a cross-legged position, bringing shrieks of laughter from the audience.
Bruce Kimmel directs with a keen eye for comedy. Michael Mullen’s costume design perfectly depicted the era of the late 1930s. In addition to playing Beverly Carlton, Chris Winfield assumes his usual duties of set designer, as he has for the past 33 years with The Group Rep. The Stanley house is festively painted for Christmas, with red walls and a bright green front hallway. Whiteside’s wheelchair is a vintage three-wheel job, which even has an annoying squeak emanating from its wheels.
The Man Who Came To Dinner plays through January 12 at the Lonny Chapman Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd. in North Hollywood. For tickets, visit www.theGROUPrep.com or call (818) 763-5990.