Dan Rowlands is a young director who is never shackled by history. A year ago last summer for Appleseed Productions he clasped onto Joseph Kesselring’s Arsenic and Old Lace, arguably the most shopworn comedy in American theater, and presented it as though it had just been written. That meant cutting some characters loose from their putative models, one-time inside jokes referring to people long gone.
He faces a bigger challenge with George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s farce The Man Who Came to Dinner, once the most often-performed comedy in American community theaters, but before Rowlands was born. It’s been seen less often recently, and is ready to put on a fresh face for its Central New York Playhouse revival. That means reshaping characters with the new cast at hand.
No one is going to mess with the premise. Sheridan Whiteside (James Uva), a Manhattan sophisticate, breaks his hip and is stranded for six weeks in the luxurious home of the factory-owning Stanleys (Tom Minion and Cathy Greer-English) in Messalia, Ohio. A fastidious tyrant, the wheelchair-bound Whiteside takes over the household, reordering things—including romantic relationships—to suit himself. In three acts, more than 2½ hours, a steady vaudeville-like parade of characters—famous, anonymous, infamous and weird—traipse by. Exits and entrances are rapid. At the end two sets of lovers are united, and all of Whiteside’s schemes have gone his way. But plotting is not what The Man Who Came to Dinner is about.
Put in the broadest contemporary terms, it’s blue state vs. red state. Sheridan Whiteside exercises to yoga, is widely traveled, curious about all the arts and sciences, at ease with all races and social classes, and dines on chicken tetrazzini. The Stanleys fret that labor unions are organizing workers at the factory, complain about Whiteside’s telephone bills, and generally seem indifferent to the arts.
What everyone knew when the play opened is that Whiteside is based on the legendary Algonquin Round Table wit Alexander Woollcott, who first said, “Everything I like to do is either illegal, immoral or fattening.” A drama critic when being one could make one a celebrity, Woollcott was nationally known for his irascible and sometimes bitchy humor delivered on network radio in a haughty, patrician voice. He graduated from Hamilton College. Scarcely a person entering the Central New York Playhouse digs in Shoppingtown will have ever heard Woollcott’s voice or seen a video of him. So Rowlands and Uva are free to what they wish.
Their Whiteside is younger and less aristocratic than we are used to seeing and speaks in equal parts bark and bite. He seems cold and imperceptive about his loyal but spinsterish secretary Maggie Cutler (Joleene DesRosiers Moody), and petulantly refuses to suffer fools gladly. Begging entreaties from hapless Dr. Bradley (Steve Rowlands), who is trying to peddle his 600-page memoir, earn rebuke after rebuke. This starts out feeling mean but gets funnier in repetition. Even worse treatment is spat at the petrified nurse, Miss Preen (Colleen Deitrich). Uva’s Whiteside screams in anger when provoked, but he can also be a sentimental sweetie, as with rehabilitating prisoners. Uva hits it best when Whiteside mocks his own ferocity. He says to the shy Stanley daughter June (Hope Earley), “I’m always nice and courteous. Now bring your idiot boyfriend in.”
When Maggie’s new-found heartthrob, Messalia newspaperman Bert Jefferson (Scott Pflanz), delivers a script for a new play that wows Whiteside, we’re off to the major intrigue. To prevent Maggie from leaving him, Whiteside calls in big-time stage star Lorraine Sheldon (Alexandra Gilman) to boost Bert’s play and simultaneously separate him from his new-found love. Lorraine is locked in a feud with British playwright Beverly Carlton (Alan D. Stillman), a former stage partner. Both are linked to an explosive Hollywood comic with international connections, Banjo (Miquon Jackson).
The winning Gilman as Lorraine is the play’s major surprise, even though she’s the nominal villain. At The Man Who Came to Dinner’s premiere, audiences were supposed to know that Lorraine was a spoof of once-bright star Gertrude Lawrence, but Rowlands and Gilman prudently jettison that. What we have instead is a monster of vanity, whose self-regard tends to shrink Whiteside’s ego, when the two are put side-by-side.
Gilman, whose fair skin and dark hair resemble that of the late Ava Gardner, is considerably more attractive than Lawrence was, but that’s not what makes her funny. Beneath her facade of grandeur and cool lies a grasping runt who cannot disguise her trashy roots. Raging emotions keep puncturing her hauteur. Such a creature cannot get her way in the end, at least in a comedy.
Lawrence, of course, was the longtime partner of Noel Coward (the model for Beverly Carlton) on stage, but never his lover. Coward might be dead nearly 40 years, but his image and persona linger on, partially through persistent if unacknowledged hommage (start with Frasier’s David Hyde-Pierce). Arch, soigné and lethal, Alan D. Stillman is having such a good time as Beverly, Rowlands simply had him run with the role. Beverly is the only character who can match Whiteside at his own game, and he’s useful to the plot even when he can’t be controlled.
The script gives several pointers that the Wildman of Hollywood, Banjo, is based on Harpo Marx (“How are your brothers Wacko and Sloppo?”). Harpo might be the most riotous of the Marx Brothers, but as we’re unsure of what his speaking voice was like, this is a tough call for a director. In the 1942 movie adaptation, director William Keighley cast Jimmy Durante, an explosive Italian, in the role. In Rowlands’ boldest move he has Miquon Jackson turn Banjo into what looks like a burlesque comic from a minstrel show. He enters with brassiere in hand, claiming to have stolen it from Hedy Lamarr (although it looks more like something for Kate Smith). He leaps, he prances, he jumps on the couch like Tom Cruise on Oprah. Good thing this comes toward the end of the third act because Jackson’s energy cannot be topped.
Lastly, the character who turns out to be crucial to Whiteside’s shenanigans is the quietest. It’s Mr. Stanley’s nutcase sister Harriet (Kathy Egloff), who waltzes in and out. Portentously, Whiteside keeps saying he recognizes her face from somewhere. And he will.
Rowlands’ accommodation to history is to keep all the action, costuming and pop references pertinent to the time of the show’s premiere in October 1939. That’s when people traveled by train, and you could make a phone call by demanding the operator connect you to a certain party without knowing a number. Censorship of the time also encouraged Kaufman and Hart to invent covers for innuendo, resulting in some of the funniest lines in the script. Here’s Lorraine Sheldon on a lesser star’s cellophane dress: “Well, you could see (two-beat pause) Trafalgar Square.”
Theater was bigger in 1939, when plays not only had three acts but 30 speaking roles, all with costume changes. Rowlands moves the stage out three feet to hold all those bodies, and designs the set: dark brown wallpaper with gold Fleur de Lys. The Man Who Came to Dinner, director Rowlands’ 73-year-old baby, still gets up and runs.
This production runs through Dec. 22. See Times Table for information.