Holiday hijinks


The Man Who Came To Dinner


Written by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman

Directed by Lindy Rogers

Produced by special arrangement with Dramatists Play Service, Inc

The Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church Theatre Fellowship (

Kenneth O. Jones Auditorium, 7 West 55th Street

Equity showcase (February 14-24, 2008 / Thu-Sat @ 7pm, Sun @ 2pm)

Reviewed by Judd Hollander


The Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church Theatre Fellowship goes for the jugular and presents a story about the ultimate unwelcome guest in Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman's 1939 comedy/farce The Man Who Came To Dinner. While this production never quite reaches its full potential, it certainly gets better (and funnier) as it goes along.


Set in the mid-1930s shortly before Christmas, Sheridan Whiteside (Burke Adams), theater critic, lecturer and acerbic wit, has found himself trapped in Stanley household in the small town of Mesalia, Ohio, after injuring his hip by slipping on their icy porch, while on a lecture tour. Not a pleasant man in the best of times, he's even worse when temporarily confined to a wheelchair (reminiscent of a caged animal thrown raw meat every now and then), and quickly takes over the entire household: barking orders, making long distance phone calls, having convicted murderers over for meals, and generally making life miserable for the Stanleys. The only one who can keep him in line is his secretary Maggie Cutler (Margaret Curry), who, after ten years in his employ, can sling a one-liner and cutting remarks with the best of them.


However when Bert Jefferson (Ric Sechrest), the earnest, young editor/owner of the local newspaper comes to interview Whiteside, something clicks between him and Maggie and soon she is falling head over heels in love. So much so, in fact, that she is quite ready to marry Bert, if he'll have her. This means Maggie would leave Whiteside's employ, something which he cannot tolerate, as he hates to have any of his plans changed one iota - unless it is HE who is doing the changing. When Maggie presents him with a play Bert has written (one which is apparently very good), Whiteside calls starlet Lorraine Sheldon (Dana Panepinto), someone who also works in the "mattress business," as it's referred to, to come between Maggie and Bert. But Maggie is just as sharp as Whiteside and is ready to battle tooth and nail for the man she loves. This leads to schemes on top of schemes, with various Hollywood characters coming in and out of the story as Whiteside struggles to keep control of the situation, while having to find a way to stop being put out on the street by the now thoroughly fed-up Mr. Stanley (Steven Ungar).


Kaufman and Hart may have been trying to write a satire about an unwelcome dinner guest, but what they've given us is a culture clash of two worlds: the urbane sophisticates of New York, Hollywood and English society and "real" American folk, who are content to do their jobs, come home and relax, fall in love and marry; the latter group which Maggie is more than anxious to rejoin. When the two sides come together the results can be farcical, comical and quite sweet. But in order to do this, the production needs to be continually firing on all cylinders, which is not the case here.


The first problem is the show doesn't throw off its "museum piece" feeling until sometime in the second act. The early scenes seem more staid than flowing and more awkward than natural. This is especially true in the beginning where we meet Ms. Stanley (Janet Luhrs) and her neighbor Mrs. McCutcheon (Marilee Daly), both of whose speeches and gestures seem deliberately over the top and forced. In addition, the set has too much of a claustrophobic feeling instead of an openness the production requires. This latter problem is fixed in Act Two with some judicial additions to the set and movement of the props, but it would have been nice to see this done in Act One as well.


Another difficulty is Adams' portrayal of the title character. Nicely blustery and bombastic when called for, the character comes off across as too one-dimensional with not enough variances in his inflection. Adams also never really gives the audience an idea of just who Whiteside is, with a manner which is the same when he's concerned, angry or upset (though he does do a nice bit of business with the wheelchair.) It's not until sometime in the final act that he becomes a character we can care about.


At least some of the problems may be traced to the elimination of various portions of text, and several of the characters, in order to trim the production down to about two hours in length. Though nothing of substance was lost, much of what was taken out would have helped better delve into Whiteside's psyche and what drives him. Instead, we are left with an incomplete character and it shows. The deletion of various characters really doesn't hurt the play other than with June Stanley's (Erel Pilo) boyfriend. A subplot in the story, some of the speeches her father makes regarding him now seem incomplete as the audience does not get to meet the character and have the chance to form their own conclusions.


Still there is much to be enjoyed here. The final half of the play is quite funny and involving as one roots for love to conquer all via shenanigans involving phony proposals, prank phone calls and the unexpected arrival of a mummy case.


Much of the supporting cast is very good, including Edward Fagan as a doctor who has written a play which he tries to get Whiteside to read; Unger as the patriarch of the house who does some excellent slow burns at Whiteside's antics (and has a final moment on stage that is hilarious); Bill Saunders and Darrow Carson as some of Whiteside's Hollywood cohorts; and Panepinto as the star who's slept her way to every part she's ever played. There's also the wonderful Betsy Ross who steals every scene she's in as a relative of the Stanleys no one talks about, and who just may hold the key to all of Whiteside's (and Maggie's) problems.


Lindy Rogers' direction is okay, though there are a few problem with the character's delivery here and there, as well as in the final moments of Act Two where a member of Whiteside's technical crew sings "Silent Night" for a Christmas Eve radio broadcast and succeeds in stepping on the final (and payoff) line in the scene. (An instrumental tape would have worked much better.)

Costumes by Sam Gordon are excellent, especially those worn by the character of Ms. Sheldon. The lighting (also by Gordon) and sound by Keith Stevenson work well.


Also in the cast are Phyllis Cox, John Culver and Bill Stewart.


Box Score:


Writing: 2

Directing: 1

Acting: 1

Sets: 1

Costumes: 2

Lighting/Sound: 2


Copyright 2008 by Judd Hollander



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