BWW Reviews: A Pleasing Repast - THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER
Plopping down in my seat before The Spotlighters' stage, I wasn't sure what to expect with "The Man Who Came to Dinner." My wife and theater companion and I had heard of the title (not to be confused with the 1967 American dramedy, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" with Spencer Tracy and Sidney Poitier), but were unsure of the details.
Paging through our program, I'll admit to having reservations at the prospect of sitting through a three-act, two-intermission production, given today's modern attention span that usually can't stand sitting in a theater, even with Oscar winners and state of the art special effects, for more than 90 minutes.
And a comedy? A nearly 3-hour comedy? Would alcohol be served in the lobby, please?
Happily, no libations were necessary to enjoy this wonderful production of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's wink-and-nod to the great Alexander Woollcott, American critic and commentator for THE NEW YORKER magazine and a member of the famed Algonquin Round Table, known for their "wisecracks, wordplay and witticisms," so sayeth Wikipedia.
The play, our program informed us, is based on the true story of how Wollcott "showed up, unannounced, at Hart's Bucks County estate and proceeded to take over the house...slept in the master bedroom, terrorized Hart's staff and...on his way out, he wrote in Hart's guest book, 'This is to certify that I had one of the most unpleasant times I ever spent.'"
And herein lies the premise of "The Man Who Came to Dinner." Mike Galizia portrays Alexander Woolcott's stage avatar, Sheridan Whiteside, who finds himself in a purgatory of middle class America, a. k.a. the home of Mrs. Daisy Stanley (Julie Press) and her husband, Ernest (Jim Hart) having slipped on ice outside their Mesalia, Ohio home, just before the holidays. Daisy is suitably star-struck at the thought of Mr. Whiteside receiving calls from H.G. Wells and cables from Mahatma Gandhi, while Ernest does a "slow-burn" that escalates to full-blown fire when he is forced to share his bedroom with his own Christmas tree to make way for Whiteside's own decorated pine.
Mr. Galizia, a bear of man with slicked back hair and a Barrymore-esque presence in his wheelchair, thunders at all about him with a voice that clearly requires no artificial amplification (no microphone necessary!). Assigned to keep him from throwing something other than fits is his secretary, Maggie, admirably played by Garima Bhatt (a tad young for the role, as if she really had been his aide-de-camp for "10 years" she evidently started in the job at age 12) who was a bit "slow off the blocks" but who's performance became increasingly nuanced and polished as the show went on-significant as the program notes this is Ms. Bhatt's first ever stage appearance!
Caroline C. Kiebach delighted the audience with her manically comical turn as Broadway blonde bombshell Lorraine Sheldon who's feet-stamping meltdown during one particularly slapstickish phone call had the audience roaring with laughter. Greg Grenier as the flamboyant, bon vivant and ukulele playing Beverly, and Jason Vaughan's Hollywood moviemaker, Banjo, add spice to the comedy in their brief appearances on stage. And a special nod goes to Penny Nichols in the thankless role of Nurse Preen, Whiteside's favorite whipping girl, who makes multiple entrances and exits, usually punctuated with outbursts of tears as she is flayed alive by Whiteside's acerbic tongue.
Kudos to director Fuzz Roark who's casting was spot-on, from Eric Poch's Bert Jefferson, who's "big man on campus" looks fit perfectly for a small-town-America newspaperman, the sort of role typically played by Allan Jones-types in Marx Brothers films. Who's Allan Jones? I wouldn't be surprised to find his name in the glossary wisely provided by Spotlighters to provide "a listing and explanation of some of the names dropped by Whiteside and others during the play," which did include "Lord and Lady Cunard" of the Cunard shipping line, famed Gary Cooper paramour Dorothy di Frasso, children's book heroine Elsie Dinsmore, actress Lillian Russell, and fashion entrepreneur Hattie Carnegie, to name a few.
Roark should also be commended for his company's choreography, as 16 actors, some playing multiple roles (hence requiring multiple quick changes) was executed smoothly and seamlessly. Props as well to the set designer Alan Zemla and costumer Laura Nicholson who helped create an authentic 1930s look to the Stanley's sitting room.
Moving at a brisk pace, belying the 2-hour-and-45-minute run time, "The Man Who Came To Dinner" continues its run at The Spotlighters, 817 St. Paul Street in downtown Baltimore, now through Dec. 21st. Tickets range from $16 to $20; a talk-back with the cast and director will be held immediately following the Sunday, Dec. 7th performance. For more details, visit www.spotlighters.org or call410-752-1225.