Theatre in Review: The Man Who Came to Dinner (Peccadillo Theatre Company at Theatre at St. Clement's)
Not so long ago, I worried that The Man Who Came to Dinner was losing its luster. Unlike other comedies by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, it seemed too thoroughly rooted in the facts of life, circa 1939. Really, I wondered, what will audiences make of a script that drops names like Jascha Heifetz, Norma Shearer, and Ethel Barrymore? Is it necessary to one's enjoyment to understand that major characters are thinly disguised portraits of NoŽl Coward, Gertrude Lawrence, and Harpo Marx? Do those names mean anything to anyone under 40? Wouldn't a company be better off with a revival of You Can't Take It With You?
Seeing the new revival by Peccadillo Theatre Company, I am now convinced, more than ever, that The Man Who Came to Dinner is a classic American comedy. Yes, the day is coming -- if it's not already here -- when an annotated program will be necessary, but the play's central conflict, in which a monstrously self-adoring literary celebrity collides with a bunch of Midwestern middlebrows, remains a timeless piece of hilarity.
It begins the moment that Sheridan Whiteside, book critic, broadcaster, and friend to every single famous person in the world, is wheeled into the living room of the Ohio home where he has been confined (thanks to slipping on a piece of ice), and, surveying a crowd of sycophants, announces, "I may vomit." From then on, it's open season on clubwomen, culture vultures, and the outsized egos they adore. Wheeling around the living room, Whiteside terrorizes his hosts, the Stanleys (a Babbity businessman and his fluttery wife), encourages their children to fly the coop, invites convicted murderers to lunch, and fills the house with a giant octopus, a set of penguins, and a gaggle of insects living in something called Roach City. He dismisses his nurse, the hatchet-faced Miss Preen, as "my lady nausea," calls his secretary, Maggie, "a flea-bitten Cleopatra," and, learning she has fallen in love with the local newspaper editor, grandly waves it away, saying, "This is merely delayed puberty."
Whiteside overplays his hand in the last instance, bringing in the man-eating Broadway star, Lorraine Sheldon, to break up Maggie's budding romance with Bert, the local newspaper editor. Bert has also written a play suitable for Katherine Cornell (another name probably in need of an asterisk), and Lorraine, in need of a vehicle, wants to whisk him off to her cabin in Lake Placid for "rewrites." This is despite her frantic chase after a titled Englishman, Lord Bottomley, whom she sees as the next Mr. Sheldon. As someone notes, Lorraine "has stopped only to change her girdle and check her oil" while pursuing the poor fellow all across the United Kingdom. Typically for Whiteside, his attempt to undo the damage involves abduction via an Egyptian mummy case.
The keys to the authors' special brand of screwball farce are (1) timing, (2) timing, and (3) timing. You can almost stage the play using a metronome, so important is the need to unroll each entrance, exit, and gag line at the exact right moment. Also, the actors must never, ever let on that they're in a comedy; The Man Who Came to Dinner, like all good farce, must be played in deadly earnest. The correct style can be seen about once a day on Turner Classic Movies, in such classics as My Man Godfrey, The Awful Truth, Libeled Lady, and anything with Rosalind Russell.
Onstage, however, this kind of farce is looking more and more like a lost art. The last great example was Jenn Thompson's staging of The Late Christopher Bean, for The Actors Company Theatre, a couple of seasons ago. Dan Wackerman's production isn't nearly as fortunate. Once or twice, things land beautifully. When Whiteside, wondering how to feed those penguins, muses, "I don't suppose there's any whale blubber in Mesalia," in walks the fatuous local physician, detonating a thoroughly earned laugh. When Lorraine, gazing at that mummy case, launches into an impromptu, oh-so-actressy consideration of What It All Means, it's a moment of pure delight. There are also nice bits here and there, as when one of Whiteside's luncheon guests, fondly known as the Butcher Shop Murderer, advances on a panicked Mrs. Stanley, or when Whiteside's Christmas broadcast to America is interrupted by a penguin-bit Miss Preen.
But, sadly, this revival is mostly a study in lost opportunities. Whoever plays Whiteside has to be the faintly menacing center of gravity, a forbidding, self-invented mandarin who transfixes everyone with his pretentions and self-regard; a deep, rumbling voice with which to menace everyone else would be a major plus. (Think Orson Welles, Charles Laughton, or the great Monty Woolley, who created the role.) Here, Jim Brochu, who has been very funny in other roles, is a tenor in a role that calls for a bass; his Whiteside is whiny and childishly petulant, his voice carrying inflections of the New York boroughs rather than a plummy, acquired mid-Atlantic accent; far too many of his lines misfire. As Lorraine, Cady Huffman is more chorus girl than great lady; the character's innate vulgarity, which should be revealed by degrees, is much too obviously on display. Other, smaller roles suffer as well. Ira Denmark's Mr. Stanley is a lightweight in desperate need of a comic slow burn. Kristine Nevens overplays Miss Preen's big speech, a small classic in which she renounces the helping professions to take a job in a munitions factory. Joseph R. Sicari's Banjo, the Harpo Marx character, is more effortful than amusing.
Susan Landon's Maggie has something of the right spirit -- there's a particularly tasty moment when, turning on Whiteside, she snarls, "This is my message to you, Big Lord Fauntleroy" -- and she plays nicely with Jay Stratton's charming Bert. John Windsor-Cunningham hits all the right notes as Beverly Carlton (the Coward character), even repairing to the piano to deliver a perfect imitation (by Cole Porter) of a Coward tune. Kristin Griffith offers a finely tuned turn as Harriet, the Stanleys' bizarre relative, who alone has the power to intimidate Whiteside.
But, too often, the stage is filled with people walking funny and acting funny, but not really getting laughs because their delivery is off by a crucial half-second. This lack of precision extends to the design as well. Harry Feiner's set design, depicting the Stanleys' living room, has a pretty good ground plan for farce, but the style doesn't suggest Ohio at all. In fact, it looks like the interior of a Los Angeles bungalow of the 1940s. Jimmy Lawlor's generalized lighting lacks any interesting details. Amy Pedigo-Otto's costumes are accurate to the period, but she has put Huffman, who is, after all, meant to be a professional siren, into a series of horribly unflattering outfits -- not to mention a blonde wig that looks like it was borrowed from Eva Braun. No sound designer is credited, although there is a lively playlist of period tunes used for the scene changes.
Like many '30s comedies, The Man Who Came to Dinner is a tall proposition, as, even in a modest production, you need at least a couple of dozen highly drilled actors. (The pretty good 2000 Roundabout revival is probably the only first-class staging we're likely to see for a long time.) You have to admire the ambition of Peccadillo in taking it on. But this play requires mastery of a style as artificial as Restoration comedy, a style in which this company needs remedial training.--David Barbour