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Prepared for the September 5, 2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper.

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`The Man Who Came To Dinner’

A handy little glossary of the great and near-great

mentioned in "The Man Who Came To Dinner" was given to me

by a friend before I went to see the revival of the 1939 comedy by

Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman in the Roundabout Theater’s new home,

the gloriously restored Selwyn Theater on 42nd Street, now

vaingloriously

renamed the American Airlines Theater. What a chuckle it was, even

before the real laughs began, to scan over the names of such by-gone

celebs as Maude Adams, Polly Adler, Hattie Carnegie, Katherine

Cornell,

Judge Crater, Zazu Pitts, and Dr. Defoe (the doctor who delivered

the Dionne quintuplets in 1934). But rest assured you don’t have to

score 100 percent to enjoy the delicious and vicious bon mots

that spew like an erupting Mount Vesuvius from the mouth of the

acid-tongued

critic Sheridan Whiteside, played to the hilt by Nathan Lane.

Surprisingly shtick-free from an actor who has been known to broaden

the perimeters of dramatic license, the Whiteside that presides in

Jerry Zak’s splendid staging is rather closer in sight, sound, and

spirit to Alexander Woollcott, the critic who inspired the role (and

who subsequently played him onstage) than to the image supplied by

Monty Woolley, the originator of the role (and seen in the film

version).

With his dark hair unctuously slicked back, and condescending to

everything

and everyone in his path, Lane is (can you believe it) restrained,

except for the explosion of barbs, put-downs, and vitriol that he

dispenses for most of the play from a wheelchair.

Whiteside, who has fallen and injured his hip on the doorstep of a

dignified Ohio family, finds himself a reluctantly housebound guest.

He is forced to contend with the cow-towing family members who live

there, as well as the parade of goofy visitors who have come to see

the renowned visitor, and it’s obvious from the start that he is one

unhappy camper.

Unwilling to compromise his comfort, the play’s focus is on

Whiteside’s

demands, manipulations, and self-centered needs, many of which are

under the guidance of his long-time secretary Maggie Cutler (Harriet

Harris). A greater crisis than his temporary confinement is the

romance

that quickly heats up between the immediately smitten Maggie and the

clean-cut attractive editor of the local paper, Bert Jefferson (Hank

Stratton), a romance that Whiteside will do anything to stop lest

he lose his indispensable gal Friday. Cutler is perfectly cast as

the wisecracking working girl who, even without the frills of a flirt,

is as ready to take a letter as she is ready for love.

Scene-stealers abound and are given ample opportunity considering

that this place emphasises plot digression over plot progression.

Jean Smart, familiar to television audiences from "Designing

Women,"

is a knockout as the stage diva cum seductress Lorraine Sheldon,

recruited

by Whiteside to seduce Bert and break up his romance with Maggie.

Her hilarious attempts to shed a tear on cue are worth the price of

admission. Cudos also to Byron Jennings for his show-stopping

comedy-set-to-music

turn, as the Noel Coward-ish Beverly Carlton, and to Lewis J. Stadlen

for his wacky stint as skirt-chasing Banjo, which he plays as an

affectionate,

side-splitting composite of all the Marx Brothers and Jimmy Durante

rolled into one loony basket case.

With a cast as large as many musicals (I counted 39), you’ll get

particular

pleasure from the many smaller roles including Catherine Wright as

the dour and ever humiliated nurse Miss Preen, Linda Stephens and

Terry Beaver as the affronted and ever put-upon Mr. and Mrs. Stanley,

Ruby Holbrook and Zach Shaffer as their quaintly rebellious children,

comedian Julie Halston in her Broadway debut as a gawking town lady,

and William Duel as the wimpy local doctor.

Respectful of the three acts in which less happens than is talked

about, Zaks makes no apologies for the endless name-dropping,

irrelevant

chatter, and phonecalls to celebrities that pad the evening, but that

also gives the play its quaint charm and thrust. The charm is apparent

at curtain rise with Tony Walton’s glamorized interior setting that

mirrors the restored Italian Renaissance decor of the theater itself,

particularly a stage recreation of one of the theater’s romantic

murals.

Costumer William Ivey Long can also be praised for his homage to the

period fashions — check out Whiteside’s scarlet silk smoking

jacket

— without mocking it. I suspect even Whiteside would not have

a mean thing to say about this grand, but not forgotten, comedy. Did

I forget to mention Elsie Dinsmore, Kirsten Flagstad, Sam J.

Leibowitz,

John L. Lewis, Sarah Siddons, and Felix Frankfurter? Remember him?

He was the "New Deal" Liberal Supreme Court Judge appointed

by FDR; one of the founders of the ACLU. This is an evening to be

prepared to brush up your Whiteside. HHH

— Simon Saltzman

The Man Who Came To Dinner, American Airlines Theater,

227 West 42nd Street, New York, 212-719-1300. $50 & $65.

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Ticket Numbers

Unless otherwise noted, all Broadway and Off-Broadway

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can be made through Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200.

Other ticket outlets: Ticket Central, 212-279-4200; Ticketmaster,

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For current information on Broadway and Off-Broadway shows, music,

and dance call NYC/On Stage at 212-768-1818, a 24-hour performing

arts hotline operated by the Theater Development Fund. The TKTS

same-day,

half-price ticket booth at Times Square (Broadway & 47) is open daily,

3 p.m. to 8 p.m. for evening performances; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. for

Wednesday

and Saturday matinees; and 11 a.m. to closing for Sunday matinees.

The lower Manhattan booth, on the Mezzanine at 2 World Trade Center,

is open Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday from 11

a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Matinee tickets are sold at this location on the

day prior to performance. Cash or travelers’ checks only; no credit

cards. Visit TKTS at: www.tdf.org.


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