University Theatre at N.C. State will present The Man Who Came to Dinner, the classic 1939 comedy by George S. Kaufman (1889-1961) and Moss Hart (1904-61), June 10-26 in Thompson Theatre. UT director of theater John C. McIlwee will star as irascible New York Times drama critic, writer, radio personality, and bon vivant Sheridan Whiteside, the legendary House Guest from Hell modeled on Alexander Woollcott (1887-1943). Woollcott not only was the larger-than-life model for Whiteside, and but he even played the role on stage.
Woollcott, whom humorist James Thurber dubbed "Old Vitriol and Violets," was a large, portly man with an acid tongue and a gargantuan ego. He was also a prominent member of the Algonquin Round Table.
The Man Who Came to Dinner made its Broadway debut at the Music Box Theatre on Oct. 16, 1939, with playwright George Kaufman directing and Monty Woolley (1888-1963) starring as Sheridan Whiteside. The show ran for 739 performances, closing on July 12, 1941.
(Locally, PlayMakers Repertory Company performed The Man Who Came to Dinner Nov. 21-Dec.16, 2001, and the Towne Players of Garner performed this comic masterpiece April 16-24 2004.)
William Keighley directed the 1942 motion-picture version of this fish-out-of-water story, which featured a screenplay by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein. Monty Woolley reprised his role as the curmudgeon's curmudgeon.
"It seems to me," says director Fred Gorelick, "that I've always known The Man Who Came to Dinner, as though Moses brought the text down alongside the Ten Commandments. My first contact with the play must have been the Warner Bros... film that starred Monty Woolley, repeating his stage triumph, and Bette Davis."
Gorelick says, "As a young teenager smitten with the theater, I was attracted to the film's sophisticated dialogue and shameless name-dropping. Years later, the first live production I saw of it was a revival at Broadway's Circle-in-the-Square Theatre, starring Ellis Rabb. It was a lackluster production that unfortunately underscored Sheridan Whiteside's mean-spirited and sarcastic sense of humor.
"More recently," he says, "I saw PlayMakers' production a few seasons back. Suffice [it] to say that my companion that evening, a veteran theatergoer who had never seen the play, wondered if it was indeed a comedy; she was serious."
Gorelick notes, "The Man Who Came to Dinner is one of the great plays of the well-made American play canon. It frequently appears in anthologies of best American comedies, and is most likely revived somewhere in the country every year since its premiere in 1939."
He adds, "I love its wisecracking surface and loving heart. The play happily embraces all things and people famous. As long as the individual is celebrated, Sheridan Whiteside, himself an icon, considers him/her to be a close friend. The Whiteside character, as is widely known, was based upon Alexander Woollcott, the famous theater critic, radio personality, and established curmudgeon.
"As a nation," Gorelick claims, "we are still so besotted by celebrity that we can keep a television program the likes of 'American Idol' at the top of the Nielsen ratings charts. Perhaps, our lack of native royalty crowns the heads of mortals and commoners to raise celebrities of every stripe to regal status. Also, I get a terrific kick out of the play's rhythms and riffs."
Gorelick summarizes the show's plot as follows: "When a dinner party for visiting celebrity Sheridan Whiteside (John McIlwee), thrown by Mr. and Mrs. Ernest W. Stanley (Bing Crosby Cox and Marilee Spelling), lands the honoree firmly in a wheelchair for a period of convalescence, the beloved Sherry takes over household and family by supervising the staff (Kerry Sullivan and Josh Parker), interfering in the lives of the children (Jackie Willse, Bradley Smoak, and Ryan Miller), insulting his doctor and nurse (Jordan Smith and Noelle Paull), terrorizing the neighbors and local workmen (Janis Coville, Naomi Eckhaus, Khoa Pham, Richard Morris, Linh Schladweiler, and Eric Santiago), fascinating an oddly gothic family member (Jan Morgan), schmoozing with his extended family of the famous (Dimitriy Kogan, Amy Flynn, Matthew-Jason Willis, David Shouse, and Rob Smith) as well as manipulating the potential romance of his secretary (Margaret-Ellen Shouse and Joel Higgins)."
Fred Gorelick says, "For University Theatre, the play's challenges lie in meeting our patrons' expectations of our high standard of quality, particularly regarding plays of this period. In order to animate this roller-coaster of a story, we are finding the life of the play in its details — the furniture (generously and gloriously on loan from Wood-Armfield Furniture in High Point), each prop down to the telegrams and cablegrams, the actual period clothing that serves as most of our costuming, the actors' hairstyles, and on and on. In addition, Kaufman and Hart wrote the play with a very strong set of rhythms. As we prepare for performances, we continually discover our own interpretation of those rhythms in creating a production as those the script were written just now and just for us."
Besides director Fred Gorelick, the UT production team includes set designer Crawford "Corky" Pratt, lighting designer Jeff Besselman, and costume designer John McIlwee. (Gorelick notes that Besselman is an advanced NCSU student.)
Gorelick says the show's set depicts the "sumptuous living room of a prosperous family in Mesalia, Ohio in 1939," its "lighting [reproduces] the glow of Christmas with enough light to brighten the comedy," and its "costumes... will remind viewers of the glamour that once was."
"Join us for Christmas in June at Thompson Theatre!" invites Fred Gorelick. "You've seen the rest, now see the best!"
University Theatre at N.C. State presents The Man Who Came to Dinner Thursday-Saturday, June 10-12, 17-20, and 24-26, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, June 13 and 20, at 3 p.m. in Thompson Theatre, Raleigh, North Carolina. $14 Thursday/Sunday ($6 NCSU students and $12) and $16 Friday-Saturday ($6 NCSU students and $14 other students, seniors, NCSU faculty and staff, and NCSU Alumni Association members). 919/515-1100. University Theatre at N.C. State: http://www.ncsu.edu/theatre/manwhocamedinner.htm. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=5781. Internet Movie Database (1942 Film): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0033874/.