Theater Review: THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER (Group Rep at the Lonny Chapman Theatre)

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by Tony Frankel on December 28, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles

NOT A SEVEN-COURSE DINNER,
BUT FILLING JUST THE SAME

While on a Midwest lecture tour, arrogant and overbearing critic and radio commentator Sheridan Whiteside slips on an icy doorstep, injures his hip, and is confined to a wheelchair in a small Ohio town for six long weeks of recovery. He completely disrupts and unnerves the family whose home he takes over, invites his famous friends to visit, and meddles in just about everybody’s affair.

This character is based on Alexander Woollcott, the reigning theater critic of his day, a radio mega-star whose program, The Town Crier, was kind of a People magazine of the air waves from 1933-38. Woollcott was a hobnobber who knew all the glitterati and literati of his era. He was also very well-acquainted with playwrights Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, co-members with Woollcott of the infamous Algonquin Round Table, a group of New York City writers, critics, actors, and sparkling if often lacerating, acerbic wits. Indeed, The Man Who Came to Dinner is dedicated to Woollcott “for reasons,” the authors wrote, “that are nobody’s business.”

It is one of the funniest plays in American drama. There may be a few votes for The Odd Couple or The Front Page, but this masterpiece stands above them all for its mix of great comic dialogue, exhilarating characters, and clever plotting. Since 1939, the thirty-six-character, three-act thrill-ride has been staged around the world annually, attesting to the play’s popularity. It may feel creaky to some, given Whiteside’s jaw-dropping (but still hysterical) misogyny, and his non-stop celebrity name-dropping (Zasu Pitts, Maude Adams), both of which may befuddle younger audience members.

As is usually the case at the Lonny Chapman Theatre in North Hollywood, the performances are a mixed bag; a few actors have yet to even fall off the community theater turnip truck, and a few are miscast. Even sycophantic L.A. theater critic Steven Stanley makes an appearance in a mercifully small role — wait, there are no small roles, only … well, you know. (Still, Stanley, who appears this week only, is the embodiment of a professor who is the world’s greatest authority on insect life.)

Yet some terrific turns from crackerjack actors, and Bruce Kimmel’s lightning-speed direction — even as it can interfere with comic nuance at times — make this a recommended affair, especially for those who yearn to see an American classic with a large cast. Hellzapoppin’ in that frantic, frenzied manner of the old well-made farce, ex-convicts are invited for dinner, a crate of penguins arrives from Admiral Byrd, and a glass-case “Roach City” containing 10,000 cockroaches is delivered, as well as a huge Egyptian mummy case.

For Group Rep, Jim Beaver fills out the grandiose proportions of the title role perfectly. Whiteside is pompous, rude and bombastic, yet despite his marathon of childish tantrums and bellowing, we don’t despise him. One of the play’s strongest suits is watching this wheelchair-bound house guest from hell go off on everyone, never holding back from telling people exactly what he thinks of them. Audiences 80 years ago would have instantly recognized the protagonist and other key roles, especially Woollcott’s real-life pals, Noël Coward (here called Beverly Carlton) and Harpo Marx (dubbed Banjo.)

Barry Pearl (alternating with Michael Gabiano) lights up the stage as the film comedian, and Chris Winfield is exquisite as the English playwright and raconteur, although his voice was rather soft singing the rather obscure song “What Am I To Do?” — written by Cole Porter specifically for this play. Susan Priver plays Loraine Sheldon, a scheming femme fatale modeled on larger-than-life musical star Gertrude Lawrence, but I would have preferred a bit more stage diva a la Tallulah Bankhead.

The cranky, demanding guest takes up residence on the first floor of the home of a prominent factory owner, Mr. Stanley (Doug Haverty), and his wife (Laura Wolfe), treating the household as if they are a 5-star hotel staff, working just for him. He’s also under the care of a befuddled local doctor (Fox Carney) and an exasperated nurse (a properly prim Kay Cole). Meanwhile, Whiteside’s loyal yet flippant Girl Friday assistant, Maggie (Hartley Powers), is falling in love with a squeaky clean local newspaper reporter (Mark Stancato), who also happens to be a budding playwright. Whiteside turns out not to be as totally self-absorbed and insensitive as we initially assume, offering a sympathetic ear to his host family’s two children (Marina Shtelen and Neil Angevine). He even encourages the daughter to run off with her beau, a labor organizer who’s trying to bring a union to her father’s factory. Michele Bernath plays a wacko relative based on Lizzie Borden, and Lareen Faye is wonderful as the cook Whiteside hopes to snatch from his host family.

Chris Winfield’s scenic design may not offer a grand living room with Edwardian wallpaper and sconce lights, but with a sturdy staircase and plenty of 30s’ artifacts, it looks swell given the small budget (Leslie Young, properties). Michael Mullen’s costumes hint at the 1939 period, but don’t really capture the era..

With its Shakespearean-sized necessities, a truly brilliant version of The Man Who Came to Dinner may be impossible these days. But I’m glad to have seen this reminder of the halcyon days between the great wars; the two-and-a-half hours fly by, with the best moments offering a risible throwback to an era of grand silliness.

photos by Doug Engalla and Barry Pearl

The Man Who Came to Dinner
The Group Rep
Lonny Chapman Theatre — Main Stage
10900 Burbank Blvd. in North Hollywood
Fri & Sat at 8, Sun at 2
ends on January 12, 2020
for tickets, call 818.763.5990 or visit Group Rep

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