Watching "The Man Who Came to Dinner" for a statement on life would be like eating Chocolate-Frosted Sugar Bombs because they're enriched with 20% of your daily requirement of Vitamin E. Nice bonus. But hardly the point. Pleasure is the point, and happily, the 1939 George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart classic loses none of its delectable sweetness in this revival by the Roundabout Theater Company, which opened last night at the company's glittering new home on W. 42nd St. Nor could Roundabout find a better deliveryman than its latest star, Nathan Lane. Lane plays Sheridan Whiteside, an acerbic writer whose loyal secretary Maggie, well played by Harriet Harris, suggests his life story could be titled "Cavalcade of Insults."
Hart and Kaufman modeled Whiteside on their friend Alexander Woollcott, who was sufficiently impressed with his grouchy, self-important alter ego that he played the role himself in touring productions. Floating somewhere between the sophisticated wordplay comedy of Noel Coward and a good old-fashioned American screwball farce, "The Man Who Came to Dinner" gallops along at a fast clip under director Jerry Zaks. With most of the play's gags and repartee timeless, Zaks has resisted the urge to update, making this one of the few current productions to reference 1930s labor leader John L. Lewis and Congressman Hamilton Fish. While dated gags can poison a revival, the exchanges here are as charming as William Ivey Long's 1930s costumes. Equally worth noting, "The Man Who Came to Dinner" still has the faint whiff of being written by Kaufman and Hart to amuse their friends, which means the rest of us feel as though we're peeking through their window - and part of the fun is getting the jokes all by ourselves. The plot, a series of flimsy devices redeemed by wit and style, has Whiteside grumpily recuperating from a fall at the home of a Midwestern family. Despite his efforts to seal off a bubble in which he can maintain the trappings of his sophisticated New York life, he is drawn into a series of minidramas with the locals - not the least of which is that Maggie falls in love with a reporter who comes to interview him. Whiteside immediately becomes Henry Higgins, denouncing Maggie as an ingrate behaving like a "fishwife."
He then summons his overactress friend Lorraine Sheldon, appropriately overplayed by Jean Smart, to charm the reporter away. This triggers a series of complications that give Kaufman and Hart an excuse to introduce caricatures of two more eccentric showbiz pals. Dashing Beverly Carlton (Byron Jennings) enters by announcing, "I have only a limited amount of time, so the conversation will be entirely about me."
Banjo (Lewis J. Stadlen), who is Harpo Marx with a voice, doesn't arrive on stage so much as explode in the middle of it. Surrounded by so many roles that require a highly controlled measure of overacting, Lane becomes both star and ringmaster. It's a double play he turns with ease. When he assesses Lord Bottomley by saying "every time I order Roquefort cheese, I think of his teeth," he's so deliciously catty, the audience expects drapes to shred spontaneously. At the same time, he listens silently when Maggie tells him he's "a man who would see his mother burned at the stake if that was the only way to light his cigarette."
That's not the final word on Sherry Whiteside - this is a comedy, after all, and Kaufman and Hart ultimately do tuck a message in - but the audience knows what Maggie means. The triumph of this production, and Nathan Lane, is they would gladly invite the man who came to dinner to stay for dessert.
It’s the finest comedy of 1939, returned to Broadway with all the energy, venom and mischief of that peppy, prewar time.
Moss Hart and George Kaufman's "The Man Who Came to Dinner" is at the spanking-new (but old-seeming) American Airlines Theatre, which used to be the Selwyn, in a spanking-new (but old-seeming) production by director Jerry Zaks, starring a vibrantly tack-spitting Nathan Lane as Sheridan Whiteside, a Broadway drama critic who is also a radio celebrity.
Zaks and set designer Tony Walton and costumer William Ivey Long have gone for the look and dash of 1939 in the (no doubt correct) assumption that Kaufman and Hart's carefully crafted comedy cosmos could not survive the air of another time.
In fact, Walton has extended the look of the retro theater to the stage, so the set seems a clever expansion of '30s pomposity.
Kaufman had been writing comedies about show-biz monsters since the '20s and Hart since the '30s. They often worked together, most memorably on the 1936 "You Can't Take It With You."
Their works endorsed the values of eccentricity, originality, loyalty and friendship over the dreary virtues of middle-class conformity.
In 1939 came their most celebrated work, "The Man Who Came to Dinner." It's the tale of Whiteside, who, having slipped on the ice outside, is forced to spend weeks in the house of the Stanleys, a primly righteous and rich couple, in a small Ohio town.
Whiteside, in his tyrannical way, takes possession of the house and of all the lives within his grasp. The play is, in fact, an American "Volpone," defanged and comfortable.
Lane is splendid as a younger-than-usual Whiteside, a gleam of irony in his calculating eyes as he imposes his will on all. His faithful secretary, Maggie Cutler, who serves as the buffer between Whiteside and the world, is lovably and intelligently played by Harriet Harris.
She is a flawless aide, except that she falls in love with a local newspaperman who shows up to interview Whiteside.
He is Hank Stratton in a fresh, naive performance. The newspaperman turns out to have written a play, and that sets the plot going.
Whiteside, annoyed at Maggie's defection, imports a Broadway vamp to steal the newspaperman and his play. She is brought off a mite artificially but well enough by Jean Smart, clad in spangled black, and later in red, and given to self-dramatizing bouts of laughter.
Visiting celebrities from the glamorous world of show biz elicit the evening's most satisfying work. There's suave, vain, musical leading man Beverly Carlton, played by Byron Jennings with just the right touch of Noel Coward hauteur, but with a warm heart.
There's Banjo, a Harpo-like Hollywood comedian and mad lothario, brought off with manic charm by the unimprovable Lewis J. Stadlen. There's also a delightful Stephen DeRosa as the world's foremost entymologist (don't ask).
This collection of big-time eccentrics is matched by the local competition: William Duell as Sheridan's doctor, who's written a huge book; Mary Catherine Wright as the terrified nurse; Ruby Holbrook as the family's kooky aunt.
It is a juicy assembly of the eccentric, the egomaniacal and the mad that keeps the comic fires burning until all is well. A major look at a world operating by the laws of classical comedy.
One aspect of the 1939 mix that seems a bit strained today is the presence of several characters obviously gay but not treated as such. It does not vitiate the play, such is its quick and hurried energy, but it does accentuate the peculiarities of the period.
Kaufman and Hart were right, obviously, to abide by the conventions of their time, but it seems today like a bizarre evasion. The play is just near enough to us to ask for reality. In another 50 years, though, such a convention will look no stranger than similar conventions in Restoration comedy.
A life-giving blast of anarchy sweeps the stage late in the soggy revival of ''The Man Who Came to Dinner'' that opened last night at the American Airlines Theater. The gale is named Lewis J. Stadlen, who improbably appears to be impersonating all of the Marx Brothers at once and, even more improbably, succeeding at it.
Mr. Stadlen plays a character named Banjo (read Harpo) in what is probably the most brazen comedie a clef in American theater. Written by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart in the late 1930's as a poison-pen valentine to their famous friends, ''The Man Who Came to Dinner'' revels in the wonderful, horrible and glamorously impossible ways of the wild and celebrated, creatures so very different from us groundlings in the audience.
With his claxon voice, gravity-defying walk and enchantingly demented gaze, Mr. Stadlen's Banjo makes a persuasive case indeed for this play's barbed form of celebrity worship, while gleefully dragging an era long past into the present tense. The same can be said of Byron Jennings, who shimmers fleetingly as a self-adoring actor and playwright, clearly modeled on Noel Coward and a blindingly polished monument to narcissistic charm.
Unfortunately neither Mr. Jennings's character nor Mr. Stadlen's is the domineering man of the play's title, and their moments on the stage feel as brief and brilliant as lightning. The man who comes to dinner and stays and stays and stays is named Sheridan Whiteside, a writer, lecturer and radio host frankly modeled in the image of Alexander Woollcott.
Sheridan is played by Nathan Lane, one of God's rare major gifts to Broadway in the last several decades. Yet this highly evolved scene stealer, who normally turns wherever he is standing into center stage, here seems more like an uncomfortable bystander (or sitter, since he is mostly in a wheelchair). It is as if he were waiting for some deus ex machina that might galvanize him into a decided character.
Like the audience, he perks up with the arrival of Mr. Jennings (in the second act) and Mr. Stadlen (in the third). Unfortunately these actors are seen for perhaps 15 minutes altogether, which leaves well over two hours more to account for in the production, which has been staged in uncertain fits and starts by Jerry Zaks. What should be a buoyant balloon of an evening -- a festive opener for the Roundabout Theater Company's new home -- is more often an exercise in deflation.
The American Airlines Theater was built in 1918 and was until recently known as the Selwyn Theater. Despite the name change, its $25 million renovation has only enhanced its period charms. What better place for a company that specializes in well-upholstered revivals of classics? What better place, for that matter, to resuscitate the warmly remembered ''Man Who Came to Dinner''?
When the curtain goes up on Tony Walton's richly colored, showroom-perfect representation of an upper-middle-class living room in small-town Ohio in 1939, the audience applauds in happy salutation. The setting breathes a promise of refuge from the abrasions of the 21st century, a chance to step back into a frothier era of comedy.
What we actually step into is an awkward place that exists in neither the then nor the now. Though ''The Man Who Came to Dinner'' is a textbook example of Kaufman and Hart's meticulous orchestration of comic chaos, a lot of what made it such a smash in 1939 has to do with more perishable assets. The play drops more names than a Louella Parsons column, and it is doubtful that most contemporary audiences will understand punch lines that hinge on references to ZaSu Pitts, Dorothy di Frasso and Chauncey Depew.
The plot is built on the reign of terror conducted by Whiteside over the home of the smug and prosperous Mr. and Mrs. Stanley (Terry Beaver and Linda Stephens). Having come there as a dinner guest during one of his lucrative lecture tours, Whiteside becomes an unhappy house guest after injuring his hip in a fall on the front steps.
Much of the delight that audiences of the late Depression derived from this situation came from their knowledge that Whiteside was modeled on Woollcott, who was first offered the role, which Monty Woolley created on Broadway.
Reviews of the play from that time devoted much ink to the similarities and differences between the character and his prototype. And it is worth noting that when Woollcott took the role in the West Coast productions, some observers felt that Woolley was actually more like Woollcott than Woollcott was.
You don't have to participate in this voyeuristic blurring of reality and caricature to enjoy ''The Man Who Came to Dinner.'' But you do have to be presented with a world that exists confidently on its own terms, and this is exactly what Mr. Zaks's staging doesn't provide.
Heaven knows, little expense has been spared in resurrecting the play's antic mayhem as the Stanleys' home is invaded by everything from a group of homicidal convicts to a caroling boys' choir, from flamboyant stage stars to a wacky entomologist (Stephen DeRosa) bearing a cockroach farm.
Yet the production feels busy without being lively. Much of the acting is a series of flourishes that sell individual jokes and epigrams without being anchored to character. This, alas, includes Mr. Lane's performance.
In a recent interview in The New York Observer, Mr. Lane spoke of his research on his role and his awareness, after watching Woolley in the 1941 movie version, of the dangers of making the arrogant, curmudegonly Whiteside too unpleasant. Yet if Whiteside isn't a convincing monster, the central joke of the play falls apart.
Looking like a cuddly, Mattel-made Sigmund Freud doll in his professorial beard, Mr. Lane never really raises the hackles, even when shooting off the annihilating invective in which his character specializes. (''Listen, Repulsive'' is a typical beginning of a Whiteside sentence.) His delivery fluctuates between Anglo-accented barks, bringing to mind Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins, and campy moments of self-satirizing melodrama.
He has some terrific isolated bits of business: his petulant, childish silence over being neglected by his longtime, long-suffering secretary, Maggie Cutler (Harriet Harris); his appreciative Gatling gun laughter for rare souls who give as good as they get from Whiteside. But the elements never cohere into a complete performance; it is as if he is still experimenting with his options.
Many of the supporting performances suffer from a similar feeling of distance between actors and their parts, a sense that lines are being played strictly for the comic moment with little regard for context. Jean Smart, best known for the sitcom ''Designing Women'' but capable of shrewd and subtle dramatic performances, here disappointingly overplays the role of an ambitious man-trap of an actress. Her exaggerated affectations suggest less a diva of the theater than a civilian's half-formed idea of such an exotic being.
Ms. Harris comes closer to a proper period tone, though she, too, can lapse into florid comic hysteria when crispness would be more welcome. Mary Catherine Wright has several winningly spontaneous displays of exasperation as Whiteside's put-upon nurse. And Julie Boyd, as the household maid, sweetly conveys the glazed infatuation that Whiteside is meant to inspire even as he infuriates.
That ultimately is the basis of whatever enduring appeal this play has: the illusion of being privy to an urbane celebrity Olympus, where obnoxiousness wears the exonerating halo of high madcap style. That's what Mr. Stadlen celebrates in his performance, careering through the set like a jet-propelled satyr, and what Mr. Jennings offers in his suggestion of a star who seems to be looking fondly into an invisible mirror at all times.
Mr. Jennings also gets to perform a song Cole Porter gave to the play, a perfect imitation of wry Coward esque wistfulness. When Mr. Jennings sings it, in a voice that melds the generosity and vanity of the consummately suave showman, he opens a door onto a shining, frivolous landscape in which one could happily spend a whole evening. That door shuts abruptly when the song is over.