Thursday, December 9, 2004
Sheridan Whiteside is a famous New York radio personality, man of letters, bon vivant, raconteur, world traveler, and hob-nobber on a Midwest speaking tour. On a short stopover, he accepts a dinner reservation from the Stanleys, perfectly nice, conservative, prosperous folks in a small Ohio town. Unfortunately for his hosts, he trips on the icy front steps of their home and breaks his hip. Now he is trapped in their home for six weeks until the broken bones heal.
Threatening to sue the Stanleys if every one of his outlandish requests is not met, Whiteside rolls into their lives like a slightly mad field general and turns their world upside down. Terrified by his threats and celebrity, the Stanleys accommodate Whiteside’s eccentric wishes, and a madcap pandemonium is unleashed upon their upper middle class world.
Confined to a wheelchair, Whiteside charms the servants, urges the Stanley’s son (Alec Head) to run away on a steamship, and the daughter (Tami Lundsford) to marry the local labor union leader, and entertains a host of eccentric artists, scientists, comedians and actors in the Stanleys’ house. To complicate matters, his girl-Friday, Maggie Cutler (Erica Racz) falls in love with a local newspaper editor/playwright, Bert Jefferson (Justin Gordon). Afraid of losing the indispensable Maggie, he concocts a tangled scheme to lure Jefferson away from Maggie by promising sexpot actress Lorraine Sheldon (Jennifer Brau) a starring role in Bert’s play.
When Whiteside learns from the doctor that his leg is actually fine, he bribes the physician into silence by suggesting he can help publish the physician’s memoirs. Meanwhile, Maggie launches a counter-offensive involving impressionist/star Beverly Carlton (Scott McQuiston).
When Mr. Stanley (Michael Robbins) has finally had enough of Whiteside’s tyranny and calls the police in to evict the man from his house, Whiteside must think quickly to ensure a happy ending for all.
And that’s not the half of it. Throw in an ax murderer, the Groucho Marx-like character Banjo (Jody Gilmore), a crate of penguins, a box of cockroaches, a chain gang of convicts and a Christmas Day broadcast to the nation and you can see why The Man Who Came to Dinner feels more like a circus than a play at times.
Whew! If it sounds exhausting, that’s because it is. Luckily, while John Rousseau’s able direction has the energy of a Marx Brothers movie, it also handles the complex plot with a refreshing lucidity. Not an easy task considering the production has 32 characters played by 20 actors and a script that requires Kalashnikov timing.
Yet it’s Shilstone-Laurent’s wickedly fun performance that drives the play. From his opening, “I may vomit,” he lands Whiteside’s many hilarious insults with the precision and ease of Sugar Ray Leonard in a satin lounging jacket. His sharp-tongued barbs spare no one, and their politically incorrect humor is amazingly contemporary. He harasses his nurse, secretary and female friends with salacious assumptions and preposterous sexual accusations. He demeans and denigrates and debases anyone within earshot with baseball bat bluntness. He is a phenomenal horse’s ass and it is all a very great deal of fun.
Fortunately, his supporting cast makes excellent targets for his abuse, as Hart’s and Kaufman’s dialogue has them returning fire with an equally impious glee. As Whiteside’s lovelorn secretary, Erica Racz is a liberated woman masquerading as a subordinate. Alone with Whiteside, she returns volley with a cool ease that belies ten years in the man’s service. Her love interest, Justin Gordon, is wholesomely suave as a small-town journalist—the man may have some real Cary Grant in him. Jody Gilmore finds another wacko role as Banjo, the Groucho facsimile, as he duck walks his way through the penultimate scene with cartoonish aplomb.
But the cameo highlight comes from Scott McQuiston, whose swishy, cape-wearing bon vivant actor Beverly Carlton charges on-stage and manages to steal the scene from Shilstone-Laurent with caustic cracks and a hilarious song called “Love for Sale.”
Granted, the play indulges itself with dozens of dated references to the day’s celebrities, such as H.G. Wells, Salvador Dali, Mahatma Gandhi, William Beebe, Samuel Goldwyn, Ethyl Barrymore, Haile Selassie, Ginger Rogers, ZaSu Pitts, Somerset Maugham, Admiral Byrd and more, but to good effect. More than anything, it’s a surprise to discover not how different things were in 1939, but how little good American comedy has changed.<>Thurs 7pm; Fri-Sat 8pm; Sun 2pm. $15/advance; $25/at the door; $20/seniors and young adults. Morgan Stock Stage, Monterey Peninsula College, 980 Fremont, Monterey. 646-4213 or www.ticketguys.com. Ends 12/19.>