Have you ever had an invited guest in your house who overstayed their welcome? A person whose visit you looked forward to initially, but who threw your home into disarray and your life into shambles? Someone with such an inflated sense of self that they believe the world revolves around them, and they never see the damage that their meddling can create in the lives of others? Someone who is a master manipulator of people and can convince them to do whatever they want them to do, no matter who gets trampled in the process?
That’s not something that would never happen in real life. No, never. Right?
No, I’m not vaguebooking again. Rather, I’m describing the key underlying premise of the classic Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman comedy that we saw last night at the Actors Co-op (FB): The Man Who Came To Dinner. Originally written in the mid-1930s by two renowned playwrights for their friend, Alexander Woollcott, a famous theatre critic and star of a popular radio show, the comedy describes an exaggerated situation that without the exaggeration happens far too often in households across the world.
The Man Who Came To Dinner takes place in 1936 in Mesalia OH, right after famed radio broadcaster and critic Sheridan Whiteside has come to visit the home of the Stanleys, but slipped on a patch of ice on the front step while entering. He is thus a prisoner of his medical condition, in a house in a town where he doesn’t want to be, with his executive secretary Maggie, for some unspecified period of time. Whiteside is a person who likes his life as he is used to it, when he is used to it, with whom he is used to it. Wherever he is, the world and the environment must bend to his will, for only if he is happy are those around him happy. Needless to say, this has drastically impacted the life of the Stanleys — Mr. and Mrs. Stanley, their children June and Richard, Stanley’s sister Harriet, and their staff — cook Sarah and butler John. Not helping the matter is an old-fashioned over-attentive nurse Miss Preen and the befuddled town doctor (who has written a play) Dr. Bradley.
Now, add a plot complication in the form of local newspaperman Bert Jefferson, who comes to interview Whiteside but ends up getting involved with Whiteside’s secretary Maggie, who falls in love — and lets Whiteside know she is leaving. Of course, this would throw Whiteside’s world into further chaos, so he involves friend and actress Lorraine Sheldon to interfere. Let’s just say the results are predictable, given this was written by a man who wrote many Marx Brothers comedies.
That last point means you have many additional characters show up who were essentially caricatures of personalities of the day, such as Banjo, Dr. Metz, Beverly Carlton. You also have wild absurdity, ranging from a cockroach farm, a delivery of penguins, an association with a home for paroled prisoners, and numerous telegraphs and name dropping with celebrities of the day. It is a classic convoluted comedy plot, with an incredibly large cast (19 people in more named roles than that) that you don’t often see in theatres these days (simply due to the cost of the actors alone, unless you are exempted by some sort of agreement with Equity).
You can read a more detailed description of the plot on the Wikipedia page.
How does one assess a story like this, especially in the present day? In its day, this was a classic situation comedy: extended silly situation, overdrawn characters (i.e., exaggerated characteristics), classic tropes. It certainly was the basis of many a sitcom: acerbic wit stuck in a place they didn’t want to be, meddling to get what they want. It certainly is funny today for the same reason.
But at the same time, there are troubling intimations of its time that might not fly today. Whiteside constantly makes jokes about the sexual behavior of his nurse. Banjo pulls her onto his lap, despite protestations. In the context of the time of the play, they are funny; but in today’s Harvey Weinstein / Kevin Spacey world, our enlightened modern mindset keeps us asking: “Should I be laughing at that?”. Looking back with today’s vision, we know the type of man that Sheridan Whiteside is, and how much he respects the will and wishes of others.
This is the dilemma of classic theatre: it is a product of when it was written, and makes a statement of that time. The Man Who Came To Dinner, while still very funny on its surface, is also a statement. It is a statement about what can happen when bad behavior is allowed to continue unchecked. It is a statement of how men perceived to be powerful treat the people around them. The story of Sheriden Whiteside might be very different had it taken place today.
Is a story like The Man Who Came To Dinner worth seeing today? I still think so. It is still an excellent comedy with great lines; asking if one should skip it because of today’s sensibilities is like asking if one should no longer watch The Marx Brothers do their comedy. Enjoy it. Laugh. You certainly will with this production. But be aware with today’s mind as well, so that men like Sheridan Whiteside can’t behave like that today.
[As an aside, that’s the funny things about these writeups: Sometimes, I never know the direction they will go until I start writing them, and then the writing muse often uncovers something I hadn’t thought of in the moment of the show]
Director Linda Kerns (FB) has worked with her acting team to capture the broad caricatures of these characters in the cast, including the clear references to the Hollywood and Broadway and Radio personalities that inspired them. I’m sure this required some education of the younger generation who (alas) are likely less familiar with the greats of the 20s, 30s, and 40s. She also got the movement and the blocking down well, which isn’t easy in this large cast on a small stage with clear limitations.
In the lead position was Greg Martin (FB) as Sheridan Whiteside. Martin captured the character quite well, with all the requisite bluster and wit required. In his bio, it is noted that in his day job he’s a Deputy DA, so I wonder if he built his characterization on some of the people he has seen in court.
Playing off of Whiteside in the Girl Friday role of Maggie Cutler was Natalie Hope MacMillan (FB★, FB). MacMillan created the proper sense of both competence and girlishness required, and was a believable couple with Connor Sullivan (FB)’s Bert Jefferson.
The Sullivan family, who were hosting the Whiteside entourage, consisted of Mr. and Mrs. Stanley (Lawrence Novikoff (FB) and Deborah Marlowe (FB)), Mr. Stanley’s sister Harriet Stanley (Brenda Ballard (FB)), and their children June (Lila Hood (FB)) and Richard (Kyle Frattini (FB)). Each captured their unique characteristics well: Novikoff capturing the exasperation, Marlowe the adulation, Ballard the kookiness, and Hod and Frattini the youthful naivete.
Also drawn and performed as the appropriate broad caricatures were Jean Kauffman (FB)’s Miss Preen (the nurse) and Irwin Moskowitz (FB)’s Dr. Bradley. Each knew how to work the characters for the laughs they were designed to get.
Most of the other actors had multiple characters, often with one primary. Most notable among these was Catherine Urbanek (FB), who in addition to playing the one-scene character Mrs. Dexter in the first act, gets to be the standout actress Lorraine Sheldon. In the latter role, what is most notable about Urbanek’s performance is how she has two characters — the real Kansas City actress and the phony Lorraine character, and uses a clearly different voice for the two personas, which is interesting to watch. Also doubling as acting friends of Whiteside are Wenzel Jones (FB) as Beverly Carlton (also Convict Michaelson, Plain clothes man, and a choir person). As Carlton, he only really has one scene but handles it with quite a bit of humor. Lastly, as Banjo (a clear Marx Bros. parody), John Allee (FB), captures the Marx Bros. zaniness well; he also portrays “Radioman” and “Baker”.
Most of the other characters don’t have strong individual characterizations, but are captured well by their actors: Kevin Michael Moran (FB) [Metz, John the Butler]; Karen Furno (FB) [Sarah the Cook]; Goreti da Silva (FB) [Mrs. McCutcheon, Wescott]; Hunter Lowdon (FB) [Convict 2, Expressman, Choir Person, Deputy]; and Chris Savell (FB) [Sandy, Convict Henderson, Choir Person, Deputy]. Catriona Fray (FB★) was the Lorraine U/S.
Turning to the production side: Nicholas Acciani (FB), who just received an Ovation nomination for his design of 33 Variations, designed the set, which was a reasonable portrayal of an upper-class Ohio household in 1936. The arrangement of rooms and props worked well to eliminate excessive crossovers and permit hiding of some of the outrageous deliveries. It was supported by the props of Ernest McDaniel (FB), Property Master. I particularly noticed the Egyptian sarcophagus in the final act, and I wonder if it was purchased from the Colony Theatre as they cleaned out their lobby. Shon LeBlanc (FB) did the costume design, and Amanda Walter (FB★) did the hair and makeup, most of which worked well (there were a few cases where the wigs looked a little wiggy). Sound and light were done by Warren Davis (FB) and Andrew Schmedake (FB), respectively, and both did a great job of establishing place and mood. Rounding out the production team were: Rita Cannon (FB) [Stage Manager]; Thien/Tintin Nguyen/FB [Assistant Stage Manager]; Nora Feldman [Publicist]; and Thomas Chavira (FB) [Producer].
[As another aside: While writing this up, I’ve been listening to the attempt to turn this show into a musical, Sherry!. I can now see why it didn’t work — it wasn’t the music, but the fact that this is a book that really didn’t need musicalization.]
The Man Who Came To Dinner continues at the Actors Co-op (FB) through December 17, 2017. Tickets are available online; discount tickets may be available through Goldstar. This is a very funny show that, while perhaps a bit dated in tone and attitude, will still have you laughing in your seats.
Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) [the company formerly known as Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)], the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre(FB) in the West Adams district, and a mini-subscription at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.
Next weekend brings a Day Out with Thomas at Orange Empire Railway Museum (FB), as well as The Kingston Trio (FB) at the Kavli Theatre in Thousand Oaks (FB). The third weekend will bring Edges at the CSUN Theatre Department (FB) on Friday, the Tumbleweed Festival (FB) on Saturday, and Spamilton at the Kirk Douglas Theatre (FB) on Sunday. Thanksgiving Weekend will bring Something Rotten at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). November concludes with the Anat Cohen Tentet at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB) and Levi (a new Sherman Brothers musical) at LA Community College Caminito Theatre (FB).
December starts with ACSAC 2017 in Orlando FL. As soon as we return, we’ve got Pacific Overtures at Chromolume Theatre (FB) and the Colburn Orchestra at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB). The weekend encompassing Chanukah sees us back at the Saroya (FB) for the Klezmatics (FB). We also hope to squeeze in a performance of A Christmas Story at the Canyon Theatre Guild (FB). Of course there will also be the obligatory Christmas Day movie.
Right now, early 2018 is pretty open, with only a few weekends taken by shows at the Pantages and Actors Co-Op. I did just pick up tickets for Candide at LA Opera (FB). But that will likely fill up as Chromolume announces their dates, and announcements are received on interesting shows. Currently, we’re booking all the way out in mid to late 2018!
As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-Lemons, Musicals in LA, @ This Stage, Footlights, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.