Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman knew what they were doing back in 1939 when they wrote The Man Who Came to Dinner, the current revival of which opened last night at the dazzling new American Airlines Theatre. They set out to write a popular comedy with the avowed hook of revealing what a number of cultural and entertainment icons of the time were really like in person.
Remember, this was something relatively unusual and titillating 60 years ago, and virtually guaranteed the success of the play. Unfortunately, these days it's rare to hear the question "What's Alexander Woollcott / Harpo Marx / Noel Coward / Gertrude Lawrence really like?" which rather dims the voyeuristic appeal for a contemporary audience.
Happily, Hart and Kaufman were also masters of the craft of the well made play - circa 1939 - and created, in The Man Who Came to Dinner, such a perfect blend of high comedy and low farce, populated by such an extravagant array of eccentric but believable characters, that all it takes for a production to succeed these days is brilliant direction and a wildly talented cast.
For brilliant direction the Roundabout Theatre Company has secured the services of Jerry Zaks, who does not disappoint. If Zaks and company can't overcome the initial inertia of a slow, expository first act, they bravely forge ahead and by halfway through the second act have things whizzing by and laughs coming so quickly the second intermission is a blessing, time to catch your breath before the triumphant third act leaves you limp and helpless from belly laughs, and exhausted from glee at the sheer fun of it all.
If you want pure theatrical magic, take a look at how the King of Broadway, Nathan Lane (Sheridan Whiteside), and the adorable Harriet Harris (Maggie Cutler) maintain and embellish a bickering relationship neither realize is based on love and respect. These are the two most demanding roles in the play and they establish the very foundation on which everything else rests. To watch actors the caliber of Lane and Harris navigate and negotiate the treacherous dialogue and situations with such self-assurance and calm mastery of their craft is the unexpected delight of the evening.
If you want to see great actors having the time of their lives playing their roles to the hilt - and letting the audience in on all the jokes - take a look at Byron Jennings (Beverly Carlton), Lewis J. Stadlen (Banjo), and Jean Smart (Lorraine Sheldon). (Fair warning: Jean Smart delivers a hilarious coup de grace during the final bows which will destroy whatever composure you have left.)
In a uniformly superior supporting cast, Linda Stephens (Mrs. Stanley), Mary Catherine Garrison (June Stanley), Hank Stratton (Bert Jefferson), Ruby Holbrook (Harriet Stanley), and the delightful Mary Catherine Wright (Miss Preen) each bring something extra special to their roles.
The set design by Tony Walton, costume designs by William Ivey Long, and lighting design by Paul Gallo are nothing less than visual caviar and champagne. The sound design by Peter Fitzgerald is technically perfect and wonderfully unobtrusive.
The Man Who Came to Dinner by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. Directed by Jerry Zaks. Set design by Tony Walton. Costume design by William Ivey Long. Lighting design by Paul Gallo. Sound design by Peter Fitzgerald. Starring Nathan Lane and Jean Smart. With Harriet Harris, Terry Beaver, Stephen DeRosa, William Duell, Byron Jennings, Lewis J. Stadlen, Linda Stephens, Hank Stratton, Mary Catherine Wright, Ian Blackman, Julie Boyd, Kit Flanagan, Mary Catherine Garrison, Julie Halston, Jeffrey Hayenga, Ruby Holbrook, Zach Shaffer and Ryan Shively.
Theatre: American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street
Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes, with two 10 minute intermissions
Schedule: Tuesday through Saturday 8 PM, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday 2 PM (7 PM Curtains on August 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5) Limited Run through October 1
Ticket prices: $50 - $65
Tickets online: Individual tickets are not available online. Subscriptions to the Roundabout Theater Company for the 2000-01 Season may be purchased online at roundabouttheatre.org or by calling (212) 719-1300
Tickets by phone: Roundabout Ticket Services at (212) 719-1300
Tickets in person: Box Office hours Monday through Saturday 10 AM to 8 PM, Sunday Noon to 2 PM