Anarchists and axe murderers. Cockroaches and octopi. When rafts of wisecracks about seemingly random ideas start flooding from a theater stage, it’s a pretty good bet that you’ve wandered into the zany world of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. During the ’30s, the pair collaborated on eight of the most sparkling works in the history of American theater, plays that 80 years later are nearly always in repertoire and — thanks to film adaptations that are regularly featured on Turner Classic Movies — are familiar even to folks who never, alas, set foot inside a live theater.
One of their gems is “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” which opened last week at the Clarksville Little Theatre.
Clarksville Little Theatre isn’t quite as venerable as “The Man Who Came to Dinner.” The play opened on Broadway some 76 years ago, and this revival kicks off Clarksville Little Theatre’s 69th season. Although the company certainly doesn’t specialize in plays of this vintage — the upcoming season includes Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons,” “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” and a contemporary send-up of Tennessee Williams called “The Glass Mendacity” — it’s nicely suited to capturing the antic spirit of the comedy.
For one thing, “The Man Who Came to Dinner” requires a massive cast; there are well over two dozen named characters in the scripts (some of which, fortunately, allow for doubling). More to the point, in the world of Hart and Kaufman, where normal people are the anomaly and oddballs are the norm, a successful production requires a healthy stock of character actors, and for this production, director J.R. Stuart has been able to recruit a full lineup. Likewise, Stuart has praiseworthy assistance from costumers Jane Burke, Bob Meyer and Andrew K. McGill (who also, by the way, is credited for sets and lighting).
Though the early going was a bit rough on the night I saw the play, within a few minutes, the cast settled into a fast-paced, confident delivery that capitalized nicely on the bubbly energy of the script. Perhaps the pace was even a bit overwhelming at times. Although I didn’t have any trouble making out the lines, during the two intermissions, I heard a few people commenting (but not complaining) that they’d had trouble hearing all the jokes.
But this is a play inspired by one of the great raconteurs of the ’30s, the critic Alexander Woolcott, who was a leading light of the famed Algonquin Round Table (as was Kaufman), and there are stretches where the quips come in lightning rounds too fast for anyone to track.
In essence, “The Man Who Came to Dinner” is an inversion of the classic “fish-out-of-water” tale. On an ill-advised visit to a smallish Ohio town, the worldly and world-renowned radio wit and intellectual Sheridan Whiteside (Michael Gaither) has slipped on some ice outside the home of the Stanleys (Charlotte Dubois and Tom Pettey) and now finds himself facing weeks of rehab among the rubes.
Whiteside’s approach to that problem is to take over the house, sequester his hosts in their bedroom, commandeer their cook and their phone for his unending stream of transatlantic calls to folks like his buddy Boo Boo — better known to the rest of us as Mahatma Gandhi. He sets out to abuse the locals (notably his much-put-upon nurse (Tracy Bond Bird) and doctor (Jack Francis), who just happens to harbor ambitions as a memoirist. Before his stay is through, Whiteside will have tried to steal away the household’s cook (Linda Arkwright) and butler (Jay R. Lilly), advised the Stanleys’ daughter (Abby Braune) to run off with an anarchist organizer (Zac Taylor) and urged their son (Neil Brewer) to hit the road in pursuit of a career in photography. All this, while also threatening to sue his hosts for $150,000 for his pain and suffering.
Meanwhile, Whiteside is also hosting dinners for a group of violent convicts on parole, and he is receiving Christmas gifts: an octopus, a case of penguins and a “cockroach hotel,” delivered in person by Professor Metz (in a great little vignette by Robert Meyer).
And when Whiteside’s faithful secretary Maggie (Jennifer Poliskie) falls in love with local newspaperman/aspiring playwright Bert (Greg Collier) and decides to leave her employer, the farce thickens and Whiteside conspires to bring in the vampish Lorraine (Carrie Ketterman) to steal Bert away — a plan that eventually goes awry in myriad ways and in the end is resolved by the use of a mummy case that just happens to get delivered at an opportune moment.
Again, this is a play made for character actors. The other locals and assorted criminals (Owen Kane, Barbara McDonough, Emily Miller, Brian Dubois and a boys choir made up of members of the St. Mark’s UCC Cherub and Youth Choir) get their rube on (or menace, when required) with gusto. Jane Burke is nicely weird as the family’s skeleton in the closet. Gaither — who spends nearly all of the action confined to his wheelchair — is a sly, eye-rolling font of witty invective. And, overall, the cast revels in roles that involve popping on and off the stage moment by moment (I didn’t see mention of a stage manager in the program, but keeping all this going was a feat).
There are a couple of other performances that stand out. Among Whiteside’s visitors, there’s the flamboyant Beverly Carlton, played with dapper, over-the-top elan by Andrew K. McGill. And in the role of Banjo (played memorably in the film version by Jimmy Durante), Jeff Ketterman is bold and brilliant, whirling the women, and pirating Whiteside’s wheelchair for a droll spin around the stage. •