Excellent MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER at Colonial Playhouse

by Ronald Comer
Bill King, Gene Harris and Annaliese Gove in Colonial Playhouse's production of THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER.

Bill King, Gene Harris and Annaliese Gove in Colonial Playhouse’s production of THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER.

First produced in 1939, at the Music Box Theatre in New York City, THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER has been a favorite among theatre patrons ever since. This three-act comedy has been performed as a movie in 1942, at least twice as a radio play, adapted for television in 1972, revised as a musical, SHERRY, in 1967, and revived on Broadway no less than three times; 1941, 1980 and 2000. Additionally, it has been performed countless times in high schools and community theatre productions. Now The Colonial Playhouse is performing this play for the second time since 1987.

Despite its popularity, this is not an easy comedy to do really well. The zany characters, their rapid-fire repartee and intermingling plotlines provide more than enough challenges for both amateur and professional actors.  The cast and crew at Colonial have gotten this current production totally right.

Written by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, the play revolves around the main character, Sheridan Whiteside, a relentless raconteur, with a ready acerbic wit. Whiteside is modeled after Hart and Kaufman’s good friend and nationally famous radio personality of the time, Alexander Woollcott.  The story goes that Woollcott showed up one day, unannounced at Hart’s Bucks County estate and, as a guest, had “terrorized the staff”, slept in the master bedroom and wrote in the guest book upon his departure, “This is to certify that I had one of the most unpleasant times I ever spent.”  Hart and Kaufman later laughed about their friend’s characteristic bumptious behavior, remarking that it was a good thing he didn’t slip and break his leg and, as a result, need to stay longer.  Thus, the idea for a play that would feature their friend as the central character was born.

Obviously, this play will not work unless the actor playing Sheridan Whiteside is fully and consistently convincing as the reincarnation of the real life, Alexander Woollcott. Veteran actor, Bill King, is absolutely perfect as Whiteside.  From the moment he enters the stage in his wheelchair, the force of his character’s self-absorbed, larger-than-life personality dominates.  King’s line delivery was always snappy, perfectly animated and distinctly understandable.  The power with which he took over the room left no doubt that this was, indeed, Woollcott as Whiteside inhabiting Bill King’s body.

Fortunately, Director, James Meinel, assembled a supporting cast that was talented enough to keep up with King’s charismatic performance.  Maggie Cutler, Whiteside’s beleaguered personal secretary, was performed brilliantly by Erin Guard, who held her own at all times during verbal jousts with her imperious employer. As Miss Preen, Whiteside’s much abused personal nurse, Joan Bickel was a treat to watch.  Her interactions and reactions to her unappreciative patient’s insults were spot-on.  Mr. and Mrs. Ernest Stanley, the formerly admiring and now trapped hosts for their famously unappreciative guest were played with perfect attention to their characters by Bill Haburcak and Sam Barrett.

Sam Barrett and Diane Lowenthal in THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER, running at Colonial Playhouse in Aldan, PA through June 15.

Sam Barrett and Diane Lowenthal in THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER, running at Colonial Playhouse in Aldan, PA through June 15.

In addition to the lead role being based by Hart and Kaufman on a real character, others were also based on friends that were part of Woollcott’s circle. The flamboyant stage personality, Beverly Carlton, played with charm by John Devine, was modeled after Noel Coward.  The alluring actress, summoned by Whiteside to break up the budding romance between his secretary and a local newshound, was fashioned after Gertrude Lawrence and played on stage with all the right moves by Annaliese Gove.  Appearing toward the end of the third act is a comical character, Banjo, given life by Gene Harris, whose antics were very suggestive of Harpo Marx, a real life close friend of Woollcott’s.

This is definitely a well-performed and excellently well-staged production of this much-loved comedy.  With such an energetic and pitch-perfect opening night, the cast will have their work cut out for them in trying to raise the bar.  If you have never seen THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER, see it now at The Colonial Playhouse. If you have seen it, even several times, see this production as well, in order to remember all the things you most loved about this script.

by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman
Directed by James Meinel
Assisted by Erin Van Bremen
May 31 – June 15, 2013
Colonial Playhouse
522 W. Magnolia Avenue
Aldan, PA 19018

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1 comment

Liz June 4, 2013 - 1:14 pm

Since I did this in high school 30 years ago, it remains a favorite and Colonial nailed it! People don’t miss this!


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