'Dinner' doesn't overstay. It's welcome

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By Doug Deuchler

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Circle Theatre's new production, The Man Who Came To Dinner, is hardly a new play. It opened on Broadway 72 years ago in 1939. Written by the team of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, this zany old comedy is still full of laughs. It's also delightfully dated — in a good way. The play is an enduring, cohesive period piece, a charming glimpse into a time just before World War II.

Much of the joy of this classic farce is that the talented troupe of 17 actors seems to be having the time of their lives. Director Mary Redmon keeps the madcap pace moving.

While on a Midwest lecture tour, arrogant and overbearing critic and radio commentator Sheridan Whiteside slips on an icy doorstep, injures his hip, and is confined to a wheelchair in a small Ohio town for six long weeks of recovery. He completely disrupts and unnerves the family whose home he takes over, as well as many of the townspeople he encounters.

This character is based on Alexander Woollcott, the reigning theatre critic of his day, a radio mega-star whose program, "The Town Crier," was kind of a People magazine of the air waves. Woollcott was a hobnobber who knew all the glitterati and literati of his era. Today, of course, most audience members have never even heard of Alexander Woollcott. But no matter. The character is so well delineated, we don't need to recognize the oversized personality that inspired him.

Jon Steinhagen fills out the grandiose proportions of the title role perfectly. Whiteside is pompous, rude and bombastic, yet despite his marathon of bellowing and childish tantrums, we don't despise him. It's really fun to watch this wheelchair-bound house guest from hell go off on everyone. He never holds back from telling people exactly what he thinks of them. But Steinhagen plays him as a loveable curmudgeon.

Whiteside's non-stop celebrity name-dropping, of course, may not work for younger audience members. Everyone from Jascha Heifetz, the Lunts, and Zasu Pitts to Claudette Colbert, Louella Parsons, and Ethel Waters gets mentioned. But the unfamiliarity of the cultural allusions doesn't hurt the show. It's just an extra layer of fun for those of us who catch these references.

The cranky, demanding guest takes up residence on the first floor of the home of a prominent factory owner (Noah Sullivan) and his wife (Patti Paul). Whiteside treats the household as if they are a 5-star hotel staff, working just for him. He's also under the care of a befuddled local doctor (Peter Esposito) and an exasperated nurse (Kate Kisner).

Hellzapoppin' in that frantic, frenzied manner of the old well-made farce, ex-convicts are invited for dinner, a crate of penguins arrives from Admiral Byrd, then a glass-case "Roach City" containing 10,000 cock-roaches is delivered, as well as a huge Egyptian mummy case.

Meanwhile, Whiteside's loyal yet flippant Girl Friday assistant, Maggie, played by Kieran Welsh-Phillips, is falling in love with a squeaky clean local newspaper reporter (Danny Pancrantz), who also happens to be a budding playwright. Though Whiteside badgers and bullies Maggie as much as everyone else, he definitely would be lost without her. They share a bickering but essentially loving relationship, so he connives to sabotage her blooming relationship.

Whiteside doesn't love her, however. He loves no one but himself.

Audiences 70 years ago would have instantly recognized the protagonist and other key roles, such as the threesome hilariously portrayed by Jerry Bloom — a German professor (reminiscent of Albert Einstein), plus Woollcott's real-life pals, Noel Coward (here called Beverly Calton) and Harpo Marx (dubbed Banjo.) The role of Banjo actually seems to be an amalgam of Groucho, Chico and Harpo.

The rather obscure Cole Porter song, "What Am I To Do?" was written by the composer specifically for this play. Bloom sings while Steinhagen accompanies him on the baby grand. It's a wonderful treat.

Heather Townsend is hysterically funny as Loraine Sheldon, a scheming femme fatale, modeled on larger-than-life musical star Gertrude Lawrence, with perhaps a dash of stage diva Tallulah Bankhead thrown in for good measure. Townsend is especially riotous during a desperate phone call. This glamorous vamp also wears some of the best costumes in the show.

Whiteside turns out not to be as totally self-absorbed and insensitive as we initially assume. He's a sympathetic ear to his host family's two children (Jake Jones and Leigh Ryan). He encourages the daughter to run off with her beau, a labor organizer who's trying to bring a union to her father's factory.

Brooke Sherrod Jaeky plays a wacko relative based on late-Victorian axe murderess Lizzie Borden. Debbie DiVerde is the cook Whiteside hopes to snatch from his host family.

The scenic design by Bob Knuth, a grand living room with Edwardian wallpaper, sconce lights, and a sturdy staircase, looks swell. Peter J. Storms' sound design is noteworthy, with lots of late '30s tunes (like "Stardust" and "Sing-Sing-Sing") playing pre-curtain and during the intermissions.

Patricia Austin is assistant director. Rebecca Miles-Steiner is stage manager.

The costumes seemed a bit blurry and inconsistent for the 1939 period.

The three-act comedy (with two 10-minute intermissions) lasts 2½ hours.

Doug Deuchler is a retired teacher/school librarian who, when he isn’t reviewing local theater for Wednesday Journal, is a stand-up comic, tour guide/docent and author of several books about Oak Park and surrounding communities.

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