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Regional Reviews by Gil Benbrook

The Man Who Came to Dinner
Hale Centre Theatre

Also see Gil's reviews of Our Own Kind of Universe, Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue and More and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest


Melody Knudson, Mark Hackmann, and Josh Hunt
George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's The Man Who Came to Dinner is a screwball comedy classic full of witty one-liners. With a non-stop parade of zany characters, this well-crafted play is receiving a fast-paced, well cast, and exceptionally directed production from Hale Centre Theatre.

Sheridan Whiteside may just be the worst houseguest ever. The self-centered, eccentric, powerful New York critic and radio host was on a 1939 pre-holiday lecture tour in Mesalia, Ohio, when he slipped on a piece of ice on the front stoop of the Stanley house where he had reluctantly agreed to have dinner. With a broken hip, he is stuck in a wheelchair and forced to recuperate at his hosts' home for six weeks. The way he takes over the complete house, his continual threats of suing the owners for their inability to remove the ice, and his demand that they relegate themselves to the second floor of the house to not get in his way don't exactly ingratiate him to his hosts. Add to that the nonstop parade of his eccentric friends, the arrival of extravagant holiday gifts, well-wishing telegrams from the famous, his dominating personality, and his meddling into everyone's affairs, which combine to turn everything that was once normal in this small Midwest town completely upside down. But it is a budding romance with his secretary and a local newspaperman that sets a scheme in motion that just might be Whiteside's downfall.

Director Alaina Beauloye keeps the mayhem flowing, with plenty of almost farcical outbursts from the exceptional supporting cast. Yet she also instructs her leads to instill the close relationships between Whiteside and his secretary and his friends with realistic qualities. Her staging uses the best of Hale's "in the round" stage, with superb use of all of the entrances to perfectly heighten the growing frenzy within the Stanley house. Beauloye is doing exceptional work.

The role of Whiteside has to be a very difficult one to play. He is on stage for virtually the entire show, confined to a wheelchair, and has to participate in non-stop dialogue with a constantly changing group of scene partners, all while portraying some sense of charm to make us like him, even though he is a very unlikable character. While Mark Hackmann stumbled just a bit on his lines during the opening night performance, he is fairly good in not overplaying Whiteside's forceful, domineering side and in the delivery of his many cutting barbs yet also allows us to see through the slight crack in his exterior that he actually cares for the people in his life. His expressive face and almost deadpan delivery of a few of the play's witty lines conveys sarcasm and disdain. While he borders ever so slightly on being too mean, and is missing just a bit of the charming nature Whiteside manages to instill underneath his domineering tirades—an important aspect since he is the antihero of the play—it is still a good performance and I'm sure Hackmann will only get better as the run progresses.

Melody Knudson is a joy as Whiteside's loyal secretary, giving the efficient, smart, and well-loved Maggie an appropriate no-nonsense edge. She also has the look, style and expressive nature of the period, which, when combined with her hard-boiled smarts, allow her vulnerability and the way Whiteside tries to foil her happiness to just about break your heart. Knudson is superb. Likewise, the three comedy cameos in the piece are also excellent. The largest of the three roles is that of Lorraine, the sexy, husband-hunting actress Whiteside calls upon to help in his plan. Laura Anne Kenney doesn't make Lorraine a cartoon character, but one with feelings, which helps us like her even more. Hector Coris is simply astounding as Hollywood comedy star Banjo. He enters in act two like a jolt of electricity. His outlandish, expressive demeanor and the fact that he barely stands still for a second evoke the comic sensibilities of all of the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, and Charlie Chaplin combined. The scene he plays with Hackmann, Kenney, and an Egyptian mummy case is simply sublime.

Bryan Stewart is Whiteside's English actor pal Beverly Carlton and he is a hoot as the comic yet distinguished gentleman who briefly comes to Maggie's aid. Josh Hunt brings the right amount of small town wide-eyed, "aw, shucks" excitement and sensibility to the romantic lead Bert Jefferson, and Ami Porter's Miss Preen is appropriately insufferable in her dealings as Whiteside's nurse.

As usual with a Hale production, creative elements are excellent. Mary Atkinson's abundant costumes show a nice range of colors and fabrics, all of which have an appropriate 1939 period flavor. The outfits for Sheldon are knock-outs. Set designers Brian Daily, Alex Fogle, and Monica Christiansen have outdone themselves with the many props and furniture that evoke the period perfectly.

While younger audience members may not quite comprehend the play's references to the famous names and instances of the 1930s, Kaufman and Moss Hart's comedy is still a fun, fast-paced, quick-witted joy. Hale's well directed production of The Man Who Came to Dinner is full of physical comedy, beautiful costumes, and a rich production design that is all led by a gifted cast, including exceptional work from Melody Knudson and Hector Coris, culminating in a high-energy frolic.

The Hale Centre Theatre production of The Man Who Came to Dinner runs through May 16th, 2015, with performances at 50 W. Page Avenue in Gilbert. Tickets can be ordered at www.haletheatrearizona.com or by calling (480) 497-1181

Directed by Alaina Beauloye
Set Designers: Brian Daily, Alex Fogle & Monica Christiansen
Costume Designer: Mary Atkinson
Lighting Designer: Jeff A. Davis
Wigs & Make-Up: Cambrian James
Stage Manager: Justin Peterson

Cast:
Mark Hackmann: Sheridan Whiteside
Melody Knudson: Maggie Cutler
Josh Hunt: Bert Jefferson
Laura Anne Kenney: Lorraine Sheldon
Hector Coris: Banjo, Professor Metz
Bryan Stewart: Beverly Carlton
Ami Porter: Miss Preen
Ned Peterson: Dr. Bradley
Darryl Poenisch: Mr. Ernest Stanley
Cheryl Schaar: Mrs. Daisy Stanley
Kelly Nicole: June Stanley
Nicholas Gunnell: Richard Stanley
Jaimie Sofia: Harriet Stanley, Mrs. McCutcheon, Singer
Morgan Tanner: John
Dilcia Yez Rokusek: Sarah
Scott Duncan: Sandy, Mr. Baker, Radio Tech, Deputy
Neil Switzer: Prisoner, Westcott, Deputy
Aaron Ford: Prisoner, Expressman, Singer, Deliveryman
Malcolm Hooper: Prisoner, Expressman, Radio Tech, Policeman


Photo: Nick Woodward-Shaw /Hale Centre Theatre

--Gil Benbrook


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