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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
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
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
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
With his dark hair unctuously slicked back, and condescending to
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
Unwilling to compromise his comfort, the play’s focus is on
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
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
is a knockout as the stage diva cum seductress Lorraine Sheldon,
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
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
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
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,
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
Costumer William Ivey Long can also be praised for his homage to the
period fashions — check out Whiteside’s scarlet silk smoking
— 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.
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
227 West 42nd Street, New York, 212-719-1300. $50 & $65.
can be made through Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200.
Other ticket outlets: Ticket Central, 212-279-4200; Ticketmaster,
800-755-4000 or 212-307-4100.
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
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
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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