The danger in writing a witty contemporary play filled with topical references and satirical jabs at public figures is that, over time, the references grow whiskers and the public figures fade into obscurity. That's what's happened with George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's 1939 comedy The Man Who Came to Dinner, now being given a first-rate production at Theatre Arlington. Unless you are old enough to have once been employed by the WPA, or you've grown up memorizing the casts of cable's classic-movie channels, you won't necessarily laugh out loud at the japes aimed at long-ago luminaries such as sex symbol Hedy Lamarr, fashion designers Elsa Schiaparelli and Hattie Carnegie, Peter Pan actress Maud Adams, comic actress Zasu Pitts, theater impresario Billy Rose and syntactically challenged movie mogul Sam Goldwyn.
But then Kaufman and Hart have been toes up for decades now, so it's not their problem anymore.
Minus the quaint namedropping, however, The Man Who Came to Dinner holds up just fine as a brilliantly constructed three-act comedy whose plot situations still resonate with audiences even when the numerous mentions of once-famous names do not. There's plenty to laugh at, even if you don't have a flicker of an idea who Kit Cornell and Jascha Heifetz were. (FYI: famous stage actress and virtuoso violinist.)
Back in their heyday, the 1930s and '40s, Kaufman and Hart were the big dogs of Broadway, as high-profile as the stars they skewered in their plays. They, too, were frequent gossip fodder in Louella Parsons' newspaper columns and Walter Winchell's radiocasts (Kaufman's prodigious sexual prowess caused a scandal via actress Mary Astor's X-rated diaries).
So when the playwrights comically needled maestro Arturo Toscanini or Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie in The Man Who Came to Dinner, it was as bitingly hip then as Saturday Night Live's pokes today at Celine Dion or Desmond Tutu. It's great comedy, by the way, that uses names that give the audience some instant point of cultural reference while at the same time sounding funny to the ear.
Funny to the eye, ear and intellect is what Kaufman and Hart turned out. With The Man Who Came to Dinner and You Can't Take It With You (which will open the new season at Addison's WaterTower Theatre in October), they established themselves as creators of great American comedies that have become classics without seeming like museum pieces.
At Theatre Arlington, director Andrew Christopher Gaupp has delivered a delicious Dinner. Working with a cast of mostly students and amateur community-theater performers--of the 31 actors, only the lead, B.J. Cleveland, is an Actors Equity member--Gaupp has drilled into them the importance of perfect timing and colorful characterizations. Like those great farcical episodes of Frasier, this Dinner has people constantly popping in and out of doorways, machine-gunning their dialogue like comedy pros. Never a dull moment.
The cast has the look of a good Woody Allen movie, with different body types, a variety of ages and some fine, expressive faces. Most inspired was the casting of John Garcia as "Banjo," the Harpo Marx character who enters in Act 3 and engages in physical high jinks with everybody onstage. Garcia, looking a bit like Buddy Hackett, paws the air and leaps over the furniture like a caffeinated panda. He's so funny he can take a line like "I was on my way to Nova Scotia" and make the audience roar with laughter not just once, but three times. Same line.
As the title character, B.J. Cleveland, Theatre Arlington's longtime artistic director, is a young-ish looking Sheridan Whiteside, more Nathan Lane than Monty Woolly. Based on famously misanthropic writer Alexander Woolcott, Whiteside must be both bearded (it's mentioned in the play) and old enough to have become a celebrity revered far and wide, worshiped even in the small Ohio town where he's been waylaid by a broken hip. Cleveland plays him for all he's worth, though the actor's delivery does take on a singsongy cadence now and then.
Whiteside is one of the showiest roles in American theater, and it's hard not to overact the part. Marooned in the home of the middle-class Stanley family for several weeks at Christmastime, Whiteside becomes a less-than-benevolent despot. From his wheelchair, he bullies his hosts and hurls loud putdowns at his long-suffering secretary, Maggie, and his flinty nurse, Miss Preen.
"You have the touch of a sex-starved cobra," he barks at Miss Preen (played on a slow boil by the angular Jan Gleaves).
Racking up hundreds of dollars in "trunk calls" (anyone remember those?) to New York and London, Whiteside devolves into the guest from the netherworld. He barely takes a breath between complaints and never expresses one iota of gratitude for the latitude the Stanleys allow once Whiteside's bitterati friends start trooping through their house.
There's the Tallulah Bankhead-y actress Lorraine Sheldon (played with gobs of evil charm by Elizabeth Averill), who shows up drenched in furs and diamonds, and the Noel Coward-esque Beverly Carlton (nicely portrayed by Coy Covington), who drops by to share some poisonous dirt about the London crowd. Four penguins arrive, a gift from an Arctic explorer, and take up residence in the Stanleys' library along with an octopus from Herbert Hoover, a box of giant cockroaches and a doddering local doctor (the marvelous Gardner Williams) who's treating Whiteside and intent on convincing him to edit his hefty unpublished memoir.
All of this wears on Whiteside's shattered nerves. "I may vomit!" he declares more than once. But underneath his prickliness lies an inner mensch. By Act 3, it's clear that Whiteside actually is enjoying himself, concocting new ways to linger a day or two longer amid the sweet, benevolent Stanleys. He also has to keep his secretary from marrying a local newspaperman.
Every loose end is wrapped into a Christmas bow by the end, with Whiteside turning from comic villain to hero--with a heart.
Theatre Arlington's production, designed by Jorge Lopez Aguado, is awash with candy-box colors. The Stanleys' living room is a riot of raspberry and green. The wartime period costumes play those same yummy hues against splashes of royal blue. Nice touch giving the men in the cast period haircuts (bit of a sidewall above the ears). Everything looks just right.
This is a play worth revisiting if you haven't seen it in a while. As wholesome as dinner at Grandma's, but as funny as your gay uncle, The Man Who Came to Dinner is chock-full of old-fashioned goodness. With a small helping of nastiness on the side.
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