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The Man Who Came to Dinner tripped on the front step of his hosts' home
and is now trapped there for six weeks until the broken bones heal. His hosts are Mr. and
Mrs. Ernest Stanley, perfectly nice, conservative, prosperous, provincial, uppercrust
folks in a small Ohio town. Their unintendedly long-term guest is Sheridan Whiteside, a
famous man of letters, world traveler, hob-nobber with everyone who is anyone--and quick
to drop their names. (He addresses Mahatma Gandhi as "dear Boo Boo.") Whiteside
is selfish, self-centered, egotistic, and manipulative. He's also aggressively insulting,
but with wit - sort of a literate Don Rickles.
Of such is farce made and this George S. Kaufman/Moss Hart comedy from 1939 remains fresh and as funny as ever in Roundabout Theatre's revival, dependent, of course, upon the comic skills of just about the only imaginable actor currently on the boards who could play the Whiteside role--Nathan Lane.
Lane is an in-demand star and one imagines he gets more movie and theatre role offers than he could possibly take on. In some of his work, his very funny, but not always appropriate and occasionally tiresome campiness has distracted rather than amused. But here the camp is minimized, though not completely suppressed, and Lane is really acting the comic role, mining its situation and witty dialogue for all it is worth. He can take a mildly funny line, and with his skill of delivering just the right tone for the moment, make it grandly hilarious. He takes great comedy lines and with that gifted delivery makes them sound as new as the first time they were performed over six decades ago.
Jean Smart is given second billing, though her role as the glamorous actress Lorraine Sheldon, is probably shorter than that of Maggie Cutler, Whiteside's secretary, played to perfection by Harriet Harris. Harris gets just the right bearing for Maggie - the efficient, been-there aide, aware of her employer's tactics, one of the few willing to call his bluffs, but admiring and tolerant, too. She falls in love with a local journalist and Whiteside's nasty plot to torpedo her romance (and hold on to his secretary) provides the central plotline of the show. Harris' performance merits a Tony nomination.
Smart is a skilled actress and a delightful personality. She has lots of fans from the TV series Designing Women and was a knockout in an against-character role in the otherwise forgettable film Guinevere. But her Lorraine Sheldon is too soft where she should be brittle; it is an endearing performance but it feels more Jean Smart than Lorraine Sheldon.
Kaufman and Hart fill the stage with characters, the children of the hosts, the sweetly dotty grandmother, Whiteside's doctor and nurse, and servants. But it is the parade of his show business friends that keep the laughs coming, particularly Beverly Carlton, a barely disguised Noel Coward played with suave tongue-in-chic by Byron Jennings. (Would that the extended stutterer routine that is part of his role had been excised. It is one of the few moments of the evening that is markedly dated and unfunny.)
Finally, the only alternative energy source on the stage to supplement Lane with a major extra charge, Banjo, played by Lewis J. Stadlen, electrifies the third act with brilliant physical comedy; his Groucho Marks references are a hoot, but his entire performance is a tour de force that doesn't depend on someone else's shtick.
Farce requires speed and pacing, frequent and speedy entrances and exits, a whirling vortex of one liners, ripostes, unexpected coincidences, pratfalls, put-downs and come-uppances. Veteran director Jerry Zaks keeps the show speeding along and creatively finds all the right actions to compliment the funny words. He brings out the vitality in a neglected classic and allows a new generation the rare pleasure of high farce, underlined with wit and intelligence.
New York, October 4, 2000 - Arthur Lazere