It isn't often we get to compare two separate productions of an American — as opposed to, say, an Elizabethan — classic within the space of a few months. Through a curious licensing oversight, University Theatre at N.C. State now hosts the second local revival of the George S. Kaufman/Moss Hart masterwork, The Man Who Came to Dinner, arguably the greatest — certainly the funniest — of all native farces. (The first, in April of this year, was performed by the Towne Players of Garner.)
I hadn't intended to draw distinctions between the two productions here, but a remark the director of the current NCSU production made last week to Robert's Reviews threw down a gauntlet I feel compelled to pick up. Referring to recent productions of the play by the Towne Players and PlayMakers Repertory Company, Fred Gorelick made this challenge: "You've seen the rest, now see the best!" A boast like that is dangerous and, given the results of Gorelick's labor at NCSU, begs a response.
Excepting John C. McIlwee's masterly comedic performance in the central role of Sheridan Whiteside (who "comes to dinner" at the Massalia, Ohio home of a certain Mr. and Mrs. Stanley, slips on some ice, and takes over completely), Jan Doub Morgan's inspired turn as a gently mad spinster, Crawford "Corky" Pratt's sumptuous set designs, some of McIlwee's own lush costumes, and the retention of a few choice lines of mildly ribald dialogue, this edition of The Man Who Came to Dinner runs a distant second to Beth Honeycutt's splendid precursor in Garner.
Working with a stage whose size can most charitably be described as miniscule, and with a cast rather larger than that on display at NCSU, Honeycutt put together a production of this venerable, deliciously venomous 1939 comedy that in timing, pace, breeziness, and style belied its exceedingly modest playing space. Her expert cast bubbled with exuberant lunacy in nearly every particular, and the effect was exhilarating as only the best evenings of comedy can be.
If I seem overly sensitive to the sort of regionalism peppered with snobbery which implies that nothing of consequence occurs in our closest suburb that can't be done better within the limits of the city, it's because I grew up in Garner myself. Talent knows no such arbitrary bounds. (After all, Fred Astaire was born in Omaha.) And it's precisely because I consider Fred Gorelick one of the most prodigiously gifted directors around that I've felt so acutely the seeming diminution of his considerable abilities over the past few seasons.
It's not that The Man Who Came to Dinner is a washout. But its cast is highly variable, and the direction is at times merely perfunctory and, at others, curiously deflated. Worse, the timing is off. To take one example: the director robs the play of its classic final irony by omitting Whiteside's re-entry into the Stanley home at the end, leaving us only with his inchoate bellowing from off-stage. Or consider the following: First, the arrival — grand progress might be more appropriate — of Kaufman and Hart's Alexander Woollcott prototype Sheridan Whiteside: John McIlwee is barely given time to take in the ghoulish menagerie with which he is greeted before launching his famous entrance line. Second, the male ingénue's third-act drunk scene, which is played here as though the young newspaperman is hopped up on speed rather than thick with drink. Third, the all-important Act III mummy-case routine, staged here at a curious angle which obstructs the action to half the audience.
The torpor takes in much of the cast; for every incisive bit of character we get a corresponding nonentity. Jackie Willse and Bradley Smoak acquit themselves nicely as the teenaged children of the house, but Bing Crosby Cox's petit bourgeois Ohio father can scarcely produce a satisfactory bluster. Jordan Smith has some nice moments of genteel bumbling as the archetypal town quack, but Noelle Paull as the much-maligned nurse Miss Preen deflates what may be the most explosively hilarious parting monologue in American comedy. As the stage siren Lorraine Sheldon, Amy Flynn hits exactly the right combination of oversexed vulgarity and vacuous pretension, purring coquettishly one moment and screeching like a coarse harridan the next, while Matthew-Jason Willis camps up his role as the Noel Coward stand-in Beverly Carlton, becoming a creepily limp-wristed stereotype of the flaming faggot, something Coward for all his effeteness never did.
As Whiteside's long-suffering secretary Maggie Cutler, Margaret-Ellen Shouse is negligible; she's too young for the role, and she lacks the fire to put across Maggie's rebellion against her employer's high-handedness. Her declaration of independence should shear the skin off Whiteside's face; here it's no more vexing than the tantrum of a half-hearted baby. As her small-town paramour, Joel Horton is pleasant enough, but you may have difficulty recalling him once the evening ends. In the small but pivotal role of Banjo (read: Harpo), David Shouse, who wears an inappropriate beard, seems to be channeling Jimmy Durante from the movie version of the play — less banjo than cigar-box ukulele.
Jan Morgan, as always, wafts in like the proverbial fresh breeze, turning her recurrent cameo as a half-ethereal, half-gaga specter into a divinely schizoid presence of the type Beatrice Lillie used so effortlessly to conjure as she unfurls her shawl like a pair of bat-wings and flutters heedlessly from shyness to a kind of two-penny grande-dame dementia. And John McIlwee is Sheridan Whiteside to the life: not so much dropping names as scattering pearls before undeserving swine; wheeling himself around the stage in his chair like a demented Dr. Gillespie doing figure 8s in his operating room; railing at the world in a kind of low-boil hysteria that reaches its apogee in a strangulated rasp of pique; and spitting invective like a puff-adder working overtime. It's a helluva show. In fact, it's very nearly the whole show.
University Theatre at N.C. State presents The Man Who Came to Dinner Thursday-Saturday, June 17-20, and 24-26, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, June20, 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/.