The Man Who Came to Dinner
Kaufman and Hart's The Man Who Came to Dinner is one of those very familiar plays that not that many people have seen. I'm glad that director Marty Epstein and the Vortex Theatre have brought it to us, especially near the Christmas season, when the play is set. It's strictly an entertainment, a fripperyand it's delightful. You don't get any life lessons from it, no warm fuzzy feeling, no redeeming value, just a bit of nostalgia, some laughs, and a good time at the theater.
Based very loosely on a true incident, the 1939 play is about Sheridan Whiteside, who is overtly the famous critic and radio personality Alexander Woollcott (who died on the air during a radio broadcast in 1943). As grinchy as any grinch, Whiteside gets stuck in small-town Ohio after slipping on the ice on the doorstep of the well-to-do Stanley family, at whose home he condescended to have dinner. He spends a full month recuperating in a wheelchair at the Stanleys, banishing them to their bedrooms while he commandeers the majority of the house, running up an astronomical phone bill, insulting almost everybody beneath him (which is the whole world), and conniving to keep his secretary from leaving him for the local newspaperman. The plot isn't really important. It's the acerbic wit that counts. Whiteside gets almost all the good lines, and Charles Fisher delivers them with perfect aplomb.
Marty Epstein has assembled a terrific cast and production staff. The set by Mary Rossman (with Kathleen Welker, Wendie Cutcher and Michael Cutcher) is expansive, perfectly appointed, and classic for the era. Likewise the props by Wynema Gonzagowski and Marie B. Nido, and costumes by Carolyn Hogan (where did she find those gorgeous smoking jackets?). The stage manager, Ludwig Puchmayer, coordinates the many entrances and exits and costume changes and sound cues and everything else seamlessly. The whole experience is as professional as anything you would find in an Equity theater. When the play seems not even to have been directed, but just unfolds like real life, you know the director has done a fine job.
Writing this during the Depression, the authors apparently wanted to employ as many actors as possible. Some characters are on stage for only two or three minutes and never reappear. Even the larger roles are more or less overshadowed by Whiteside/Fisher, but most of the actors manage to make memorable impressions. Everyone is way more than competent, but the standouts for me are Michelle Boehler, Arlette Morgan, Jeremy Joint, Jeremy Gwin, and Hugh Witemeyer. This is partly because their roles are bigger or showier than the others, but mainly because they are just excellent.
Some people might find The Man Who Came to Dinner to be inconsequential, an old chestnut that's not worth staging with the care and affection that Marty Epstein and his cast and crew have lavished on it. But who's to say what's "important" theater? Sometimes it's just as important to make people laugh.
The Man Who Came to Dinner by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart is being performed at the Vortex Theatre, 2900 Carlisle NE in Albuquerque. Through November 30, 2014. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30, Sundays at 2:00. Info at vortexabq.org or 505-247-8600.