Theatre Rhinoceros presents a Farcical Version of The Man Who Came to Dinner
Also see Richard's review of The Christmas Ballet
Theatre Rhinoceros continues its 27th Season with the timeless American classic comedy farce The Man Who Came to Dinner, written by the geniuses of American Theatre, Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman.
I go way back with the houseguest from hell, Sheridan Whiteside, to 1941 when I spent a summer vacation from high school in New York. I saw a charismatic Monty Woolley with that magnificent beard playing the old curmudgeon in the wheelchair. The role made a star of Mr. Woolley, whose chief claim to fame had been that he was a close friend of Cole Porter. Monty went on to repeat his role in the Warners Brothers film in 1942, supported by Jack Warner’s stars Bette Davis and Ann Sheridan. He had a brief career in films following that role.
I saw the revival at Circle in the Square in the summer of 1985 with Ellis Rabb in an excellent portrayal. The most recent revival was at the American Airlines Theatre where Nathan Lane played the critic, lecher, wit and radio orator. This was later televised on PBS with the original cast. BBC did a production of the classic in 1947 with British character actor Frank Pettingell, and NBC did an updated version with Orson Wells in 1972 where the celebrities and dialogue were strictly '70s. I also saw the musical Sherry! in the spring of 1967 at the Alvin with Clive Revill playing Whiteside and Elizabeth Allen playing the faithful secretary. James Lipton’s lyrics were far superior to the Lawrence Rosenthal music. Last year, a cast recording was made of the score with Nathan Lane playing the killjoy. Regional theatre saw George Ward at TheatreWorks and Kenneth Albers at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival doing a splendid portrayal of the character.
For those of you who don’t know the plot of this classic farce, it centers around the demanding, omnipresent, six-week-long houseguest Sheridan Whiteside (P.A. Colley) who comes to dinner at the home of Ohio social couple Mr. and Mrs. Stanley (Drew Todd and Sandy Schlechter) during the Christmas season. Unfortunately for the Stanleys, Sheridan slips and falls on the ice on the homestead steps as he is leaving, thereby fracturing his hip. The local doctor (Kim Larsen), who is also a frustrated playwright, plops him in a wheelchair and the longterm patient becomes the houseguest from hell. The playwrights have patterned this personality after Alexander Woollcott, a celebrated radio person known for his wit and worldly manner.
What happens to the Stanleys shouldn’t happen to a dog. Whiteside, who is distinctly bitchy and very childish, takes over the living room and all sorts of celebrities show up to wish the famous man a joyful holiday. Hart and Kaufman have patterned these folks after famous entertainment figures of the day. Professor Metz (Matthew Martin) brings a glass-enclosed miniature city of 10,000 cockroaches (a look alike of Albert Einstein); Beverly Carlton (Matthew Martin) comes tap dancing in as a Noel Coward figure; stage star Lorraine Sheldon (Libby O’Connell), comes slinking in like Gertrude Lawrence; Banjo (Matthew Martin), a zany comedian who is supposed to be like Harpo Marx, livens up the third act (Harpo Marx actually played this role in summer stock in the '40s). There are also some ex-convicts invited to dinner and four penguins unexpectedly show up from Admiral Byrd. All of this happens - plus an outlandish telephone bill of $784 (a lot of money those days) of overseas calls - to the put upon Stanleys who have to use the servant entrance to their own house.
Director John Fisher has made this three act comedy very fast paced and slapstick, with some real over-the-top acting. There are pratfalls galore, screaming, hideous laughter and down right silly acting, but somehow it is entertaining. The director gets great timing out of all of the characters on stage, and he uses a no-holds-barred technique on some the acting that is pure ham.
Most of the portrayals of Sheridan Whitehead I have seen have been neutral in their sexuality; they could be either gay or straight. Kenneth Albers of the OSF tended to make him very masculine while Nathan Lane gave a little gay feeling to the man. P.J. Cooley takes the gay approach, and Mr. Fisher himself said that Kaufman, Hart and Woollcott never intended to create a gay character; the director believes they deliberately left the sexuality of this man open to interpretation. This director has decided to make him gay. There is even a little cruise scene between Sheridan and reporter Bert Jefferson (Matt Weimer) to build up that impression.
P.J. Cooley provides a nice portrayal of the all-encompassing house guest. He reminds me of Truman Capote with a beard and he has a style of laughter that would drive anyone mad. He throws tantrums like a small child at a moment's notice, and yet he shows the nicer side of the character as he learns from his own mistakes.
Mathew Martin, one of our best drag artists in the Bay area, dons straight clothes to play Professor Metz, Beverly Carlton and Bingo. He is priceless as Beverly and breaks out in a great song and dance routine to Cole Porter’s “What Am I to Do?” that was composed by the tunesmith for the original production. His portrayal of Bingo is spot on with a mixture of all of the Marx Brothers thrown in. Outstanding is Libby O’Connell as the sexy symbol Lorraine Sheldon. She is every bit a vamp and she plays the role to the hilt. Her body language and voice are great. In the scene when the character realizes that she has been made a fool, Libby does a tour de force of torment that is first rate.
Matt Weimer and Maryssa Wanlass as the romantic Bert and Maggie play the roles low key but occasionally seem to get into an over-the-top farcical acting track. There are several John Fisher touches in this production. David Bicha plays the wildest Chief I have ever seen; he should be playing Carmen Ghia in The Producers. He flies onto the stage and hams the role to the hilt. Kim Larsen also pulls out all stops as the doctor who has written a play that, from the look of the script, must run 10 hours long. Sandy Schlechter, who plays the distressed Mrs. Earnest Stanley, does a superb complete turn as the mysterious Harriet Stanley. Shira Burnstein and Jeffrey Hartgraves as “the children” of the Stanleys do what they can with their roles, but they seem a might too old for the parts. Floriana Alessandria as the long suffering nurse is good as she runs in and out screaming, and she has one of the best scenes during which she tenders her resignation to Sheridan.
I was told that during the one week preview before its opening, John Fisher trimmed 20 minutes off of the long, three act play. It was a wise decision, as he now has a very tight production with some excellent timing on the part of the cast.
The Man Who Came to Dinner runs through January 9 at the Theatre Rhinoceros, 2926 16th (Mission and S Van Ness), San Francisco, For tickets call 415-861-5079 or visit their website www.therhino.org
Their next production will be the west coast premiere of Tennessee Williams' Not About Nightingales which will be the second time this play has been presented in this country.