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The Man Who Came To Dinner

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Jim Brochu and Cady Huffman.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

With theatre, as with food, seasoning is everything. The Peccadillo Theater Company has proven in the past that its well-stocked spice cabinet can be put to excellent use with period plays, but with the company's new production of The Man Who Came to Dinner at the Theatre at St. Clement's, almost every jar is well past its expiration date.

The same is frequently said of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's classic 1939 comedy itself, but that's never a given. True, the playwrights based their story, about entertainment raconteur Sheridan Whiteside being cooped up in the Masalia, Ohio, home of Ernest and June Stanley and terrorizing his hosts for two weeks, on the larger-than-life critic Alexander Woollcott. And he, like the sources for many of the subsidiary above-the-marquee misfits with whom Whiteside associates, which include Noel Coward, Gertrude Lawrence, and Harpo Marx, are not always well remembered today. But because each represents a timeless type—the full-of-himself bull, the elegant bon vivant, the man-hungry megastar, and so on—it takes only gentle prodding to make them all palatable, even delectable, to modern tastes.

Unfortunately, each role—whether the spangled show-biz folk or the Masalia hangers-on so floored by Whiteside's on-the-pulse destructiveness—also requires a big personality, and director Dan Wackerman and his company have provided far too few of those. When the roles are played either strictly naturalistically or as clowns in disguise, theoretically bulletproof parts crumple into lifelessness. And with only a few exceptions, that's exactly what happens here.

It starts at the top, too. As Jim Brochu plays him, Whiteside is desperate to be liked, forever cooing and playing with those under him (which he thinks is just about everyone), rather than either running rampant over them or seizing on their dreams for his own edification. He's not playful in the traditional sense, and he's not condescending—he's too Important-with-a-Capital-I for that. Yet Brochu oozes both these qualities, highlighting the tiniest notes of Whiteside's childishness but none of the tendencies to roar or maul that make him a magnetic monster to the simpler folk he encounters. For a man who's an existential threat to small-town order, Brochu's Whiteside is disquietingly quiet and nice; Whiteside isn't supposed to be a human, so treating him as one doesn't work.

Nor does portraying ravenous theatrical it girl Lorraine Sheldon as a sympathetic soul who enjoys a good date on Saturday night. The script describes her as "glamorous," someone who "glitters as she walks," and indeed, the character must project larger-than-life appetites for both drama and men: She must believably romance English aristocracy and a rural newspaperman at the same time, and be prone to effect Joan of Arc poses at the opening of a yawning sarcophagus. Cady Huffman speaks with an alluring, velvety purr, but conveys minimal worldly verve at best; in Amy Pedigo-Otto's unimaginative costumes, she resembles a homemaker whose idea of a visit to the continent is dressing up for a night at an Italian restaurant.

Joseph R. Sicari doesn't quite hit all his Marx as the rambunctious Banjo, and stops barely short of making him a leery old man instead of an irrepressible free spirit, though he's endearing enough to communicate the basic idea. The same can't be said of either Amy Landon, who's too much steel and not enough softness as Whiteside's secretary, Maggie, or Jay Stratton, who is too bulging-eyed hyperactive as the local reporter she falls for (to Whiteside's consternation). More problems crop up with Ira Denmark, whose begins Ernest's outrage at full boil, and has nowhere to go later; Tony Triano as the opportunistic doctor-cum-playwright who's treating Whiteside; and especially Kristine Nevins, who so telegraphs Nurse Preen's exasperation with Whiteside's scorn that her traditionally show-stopping third-act monologue repudiating him disintegrates prior to impact.

The few performers who find the right style are mostly lost in smaller roles. Thursday Farrar is sparkly as the maid, Sarah, and suggests a hopeful interior life you accept Whiteside could and would cultivate. Scott Evans and Jenna Gavigan unlock the proper skyward-looking innocence needed for the two Stanley children. And John Windsor-Cunningham is an absolute delight in his tragically short scene as British bon vivant Beverly Carlton, blending stiffness with sumptuousness in a way that far more people onstage should be doing.

Wackerman's staging is adequate on Harry Feiner's airy living-room set, though the action's pacing is too erratic to prime the atmosphere for the humor that should come easily. As with Wackerman's arid production of Room Service several seasons back, some performers so strain for laughs (particularly Brochu, Nevins, and Kristin Griffith as Ernest's secretive sister) that they end up more tragic than funny. Trying too hard is among the easiest of ways to deflate Kaufman-and-Hart effervescence, as this version of The Man Who Came to Dinner demonstrates, but that's a symptom rather than a sickness. If salt and pepper were more plentiful, maybe the actors wouldn't be struggling as much to bring out the entrée's basic flavors?

The Man Who Came To Dinner
Through December 18
Theatre at St. Clements, 423 West 46th Street
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