Saturday, August 03, 2002

The Man Who Came to Dinner (Berea Summer Theatre)

Man shouldn't have come to dinner at Berea Summer Theatre

George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart only wrote plays together from 1930 to 1940. But, what a ten years those were! So important were their contributions that they are often compared to the likes of Gilbert and Sullivan or Rodgers and Hammerstein.
After 1940 the two did not work together again--not because they had a falling-out, as was the case with Gilbert and Sullivan, but because Hart had a psychological need to prove that his success was not due to a dependence on Kaufman.

Their collaborations included Once in a Lifetime, Merrily We Roll Along (1934), You Can’t Take It with You (1936), I’d Rather Be Right (1937), The Fabulous Invalid (1938), The American Way (1939), The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939), and George Washington Slept Here (1940). Their shows mirrored the era during which they wrote and, because of that, are in limited production today.

'THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER' centers on Sheridan Whiteside, a famous radio and newspaperman who, while on a speaking engagement, is invited to dine at the home of a small town Ohio family. On the way out of the house he slips on their doorstep breaking his hip, and a tumultuous six-week confinement follows. Sheridan is irascible. Ex-convicts are invited to meals, transatlantic calls bring a huge phone bill, strange gifts arrive including penguins, an octopus, 50,000 cockroaches, and a mummy case. When Maggie, his secretary, falls in love with a local reporter, Bert Jefferson, Whiteside summons a glamorous actress, Lorraine, to win the affections of the young man so that Maggie won’t leave his employ. Eventually, when all the problems seem to be resolved, Whiteside departs from the Stanley's home, but a second later a crash is heard.

The character of Sheridan Whiteside is based on Alexander Woolcott, the drama critic of THE NEW YORK TIMES, who was an outsized and extravagant egotist. The character of Banjo is based on Harpo Marx who Kaufman knew well after writing the scripts for the Marx Brothers films 'ANIMAL CRACKERS' and 'A NIGHT AT THE OPERA.'

One must ask why Berea Summer Theatre decided to stage 'THE MAN WHO CAME DINNER.' It is a very dated, overly long show that has been mostly unsuccessful in its latest rebirths. Nathan Lane’s television version was a critical and commercial flop. Last year the Shaw Festival’s attempt was met with negative critical and audience reactions. Who cares or even knows about The Wagner Act, John L. Lewis, Zazu Pitts, Philo Vance, True Story Magazine or the ditty “I ‘m just a wittle wabbit.” To add to the problems is the huge size of the cast, the necessity for actors to portray farce, slapstick and comedy with ease, and lots of props and costumes.

The BST production just doesn’t work well. The pace is slow, the characters often not well drawn, the quality of the acting is often wanting, and some of the production values are questionable.

Jean Colerider is delightful as the frustrated nurse, Mary Faktor’s wide eyed eccentricism is right on key for creating the mysterious sister, Meg Chamberlain develops a clear character as the secretary, and the audience-pleasing Kevin Joseph Kelly is hysterical in portraying the Harpo Marx-like Banjo. The kid’s chorus is one of the highlights of the show. Dudley Swetland, as Sheridan Whiteside, has some fine moments, but does not create the layers of what should be an overblown curmudgeon. Barbara Corlette fails to convince as the sexy globe-trotting actress.

Jeffrey Smart’s costumes are basically period correct. The set is weirdly-colored and rather shabbily constructed. Many props were unreal. The shabby box with the penguins kept changing in weight according to who was carrying it. The cockroach carrier was wrapped like a cardboard gift package. Letters and bills were obviously not real.

Capsule judgement: 'THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER' is a dated show that gets a marginal production at BST.