7 August 2004: Hart and Kaufman, The Man Who Came to Dinner

New Century Theatre, Theatre 14 at Smith College. Directed by Jack Neary

A sparkling, very entertaining production of an extremely silly and very funny play that for long has been considered a classic of American stage comedy. It ran 739 performances in its first production, in 1939. The play has by far the largest cast of any yet produced by NCT. Rehearsing it must’ve been simultan­eously a challenge and a laugh fest. There are num­er­ous factors to control and many crisp entrances to get right; numerous props to be used exactly right, including a crate of penguins and a full size — oversize, in fact — mummy case.

This is a play that reminds one irresistibly of screwball film comedies of the period, but it has the unusual cachet of revolving around a single, larger-than-life personality, Sheridan Whiteside, played by Monty Woolley in the original production and modeled on the critic and author Alexander Woolcott, infamous for his insults. The plot has a surefire structure involv­ing a slip on the ice by the visiting Whiteside (played with Molièresque, monomaniacal intensity by Steve Brady), a resulting unintended sojourn, and a departure capped by another unintended fall on the ice, precipitating a conclusion in which all chaos reigns. The last state of the family and the community is worse than the first. Meanwhile, the inventive imagination of Kaufman and Hart do full justice to the outrageous possibilities prov­ided by a completely predictable middle-class family, on the one hand, and a large cohort of visiting theatrical luminaries, on the other.

It is very much a Broadway play for Broadway insiders, whom the play shame­­lessly flatters for their ability to recognize their fantasies of what Mid­western life (one remembers the immortal question “Will it play in Peoria?”) is, must be, like, and their favorite stars of stage and screen — Gertrude Laurence, Noel Coward, and Harpo Marx. The play celebrates even while ridiculing “normal” American life, all the more charming and appealing when thrown into radical disarray — even while it’s even busier celebrating the cult of personality represented by the New York and Holly­wood star. Its only real secret is that neither sphere gives way to the other in its fulsome sentimentality. Sheridan Whiteside, for all his vitriolic tongue, is a soft-hearted old teddy bear who believes as firmly as any Peorian in the fulfillment of youthful ambition, the primacy of true love, the endurance of heart-felt friendship, and the importance of good cooking. His ready insults are literate, carefully crafted pieces of invective seeming­ly intended to con others into submission — as well as to entertain himself — but they fail to cover up his own patent middle-class values, his readi­ness to rescue damsels in distress, and his deep, unacknowledged loneli­ness. The last quality leads him to surround himself with hordes of people whom he can serve or thwart, as necessity or mere whim may dictate, and whose blandishments or rooted demands he can relish or parry at will.

His need for company of all kinds is in fact so deep that he manages to slip on the ice at the Stanley family’s door once again so that he can still remain the center of attention. Of course, we do not need an Act IV to know what that will be like, since we have seen the definitive example of sustained co-dependence so well exemplified in the three acts of the play as it stands.

As produced by Sam Rush and Jack Neary, whose kindred spirit is super-evident at every moment of this lavishly mounted play, The Man Who Came to Dinner proves to be a bang-up end to one of the best, most well directed, well acted, and well produced seasons yet. We look forward to next year — and, before that, to the NCT production of a comedy by Neary at CityStage, in Springfield, in September.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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