Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Man Who Came to Dinner

Comedy goes askew at Ensemble

‘THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER,’ which is now on stage at Ensemble Theatre, was George Kaufman and Moss Hart’s comic tribute to their good friend, Alexander Woolcott, the sharp witted and sarcastic tongued theater critic and national radio broadcast star. It also includes famous character take-offs including that of playwright and actor Noel Coward and Harpo Marx of filmdom’s Marx Brothers.

The play debuted on October 16, 1939 at the Music Box Theatre in New York City and enjoyed long New York and London runs. It has many of the same bizarre characteristics that made the duos ‘YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU’ such a hit.
‘THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER’ is set in the fictional small town of Mesalia, Ohio in the weeks just before Christmas, 1930. We learn that the outlandish radio wit, Sheridan Whiteside, was invited to dine at the house of rich factory owner Ernest W. Stanley and his family. However, before Whiteside enters the house, he slips on a patch of ice outside the front door and injures his hip. He moves in to recuperate, and all hell breaks loose.

British actor and director, Sir Donald Wolfit’s deathbed quip, "Dying is easy, comedy is hard," captures so well the paradox that it seems so easy to make people laugh, but as many actors and directors find out, it is not easy at all. The secret to good comedy is impeccable timing and fidelity to reality, and that’s not easy to accomplish. There is subtlety and sarcasm needed, not screaming. There is the need to make the people real, so we laugh with them, not at them.

Though the cast tried hard, Ensemble’s ‘THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER’ proves how hard it is to do comedy well. Most of the performers missed out on the comic timing and creation of reality. So the production missed out on many of the laughs and failed to create all the joyousness of the script.

Now, to be fair, Ensemble is basically an amateur company. Yes, there were several equity members on stage in this production, but, for the most part, in spite of what appeared in the program notes to be a very experienced cast, most of the credits alluded to other amateur stages. Amateurs tend to make the same mistakes over and over since, in many instances, the quality of the directors they work with doesn’t allow them to learn the finesses of performance. This is not true of this production’s director, Brian Zoldessy, who is an excellent teacher, but he can’t undo bad habits in one show.

Presentation highlights include Greg Violand as Beverly (Noel Coward) whose comic timing and singing are character correct. Brian Zoldessy has some delightful moments as Banjo (Oscar Wilde), though he could have been even broader in his characterization. James Kisicki is generally on target as Whiteside (Woolcott), but fumbles some lines and doesn’t always build to the harassable levels for which Woolcott was famous. In smaller parts, Sharmon Sollitto as the nurse, Stuart Hoffman as the son and Jeanne Task, as the mystery lady, do a nice job.

Much of the rest of the cast fails to create consistent or believable characterizations causing the humor to be limited. The was a lot of acting, and not a lot of reacting to the other characters and to the lines.

If you want to see this script in a wonderful version rent the film which stars Monte Wooley, Billie Burke and Betty Davis.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER’ is a 1930s comedy which has a tone and style that is hard to interpret by any but the best of actors. The cast at Ensemble puts out effort, but misses too many marks to make their staging effective.