Now being performed at Geva's Nextstage through Saturday, December 27, "The Man Who Came to Dinner" comes to the stage courtesy of Rochester's Screen Plays, a wonderfully creative theater group dedicated to performing classic American plays that were made iconic on film (in this case, the 1942 motion picture starring Bette Davis, Monty Woolley, and Ann Sheridan). I enjoyed the group's performance of the "Vintage Hitchcock" radio plays during this year's Rochester Fringe Festival, and with this considerably more ambitious new show, the group delivers a delightfully entertaining, old-fashioned, holiday-themed romp.
The 1939 stage comedy from writing duo Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman begins in medias res as we learn that celebrity radio personality and critic Sheridan "Sherry" Whiteside (Ray Salah) had been invited to dine at the Ohio home of wealthy factory owner Ernest W. Stanley (Morey Fazzi) and his family, when Whiteside slipped on a small patch of ice outside their front door and fractured his hip. What was meant as a brief visit on his tour from New York City has turned into a nearly two week stay, and as the play opens, Whiteside has just been informed by his doctor that he'll have to remain there for some weeks more before he's healthy enough to leave.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, Sherry holds court in the Stanley's home while he banishes the family to the upstairs quarters, appropriating the downstairs for his personal recovery room and workplace, relying on the help of his long-suffering, but devoted secretary, Maggie (Susan Milner). In keeping with his reputation as an "intimate friend to the great and near-great," Sherry receives visitors along with various calls and well-wishes from luminaries from H.G. Wells to Shirley Temple (the show is loaded with period-appropriate name-dropping, the majority of which I admit flew well above my head). Despite the imposition, the star-struck Mrs. Stanley (Kate Lacy-Stokoe) is delighted by their new houseguest, though her husband is markedly less so; Sherry's constant threat of leveraging a lawsuit against the family doesn't necessarily help matters.
A natural raconteur, Whiteside uses his caustic wit to hurl inventive insults at everyone within spitting distance, as he's forced to suffer at "the gross inadequacies of the human race." He seems to take particular joy in tormenting his harried nurse, Miss Preen (a wonderfully deadpan Shawnda Urie). Over the course of three acts, a story does eventually develop, as Maggie falls for Bert Jefferson (Ken Dauer), a local newspaperman and aspiring playwright. Hoping for a marriage proposal, she makes it clear to Sherry that she intends to remain in Ohio with Bert.
Complications arise as Sherry sets various machinations in motion to ensure he keeps the love birds apart and Maggie stays by his side. Step one involves inviting glamorous, free-wheeling actress Lorraine Sheldon (a very funny Gretchen Woodworth) to come by and seduce poor Bert (who's apparently assumed by all involved to be unable to control himself around other women).
Meanwhile, Whiteside further disrupts his host's lives by encouraging the Stanley children to run off and pursue their dreams of marriage and a career in photography, respectively, while also developing a certain fondness for Mr. Stanley's eccentric sister, Harriet (Kathy Dauer). Along the way, cockroaches, penguins, and a rogue octopus (all offstage, unfortunately) also come into play, and if you don't giggle at the mental image of a room filled with penguins run amok, this play probably isn't for you.
It's interesting to see how the show's old-timey sensibilities play in a modern context. For one, I can't remember the last time I sat through a true three-act play. In our era of ever decreasing attention spans, it's novel to go back to a time when shows took such time to let the comedy develop. Written today, the show would likely zip by at a trim 90 minutes, but as is, the slow build toward the zany antics took some getting used to. I admit that I felt myself begin to fidget deep into the second act. I was a bit worried, as the show starts off as a bit one-note, devoting lots of time to Sherry heckling everyone around him, but gets better as it goes on. Still, the show is consistently amusing, even if it never quite boils over into uproariousness.
Ray Salah sinks his teeth into the juicy role, delivering a scenery-chewing performance, and he's capably supported by a cast of big and broad supporting characters. He and Ms. Milner share a lovely, platonic chemistry that's key in making the plot entirely convincing. Ms. Dauer deserves a special mention for the way she's able to earn laughs just from the way she enters a room. Mark Block gets a lot of laughs as Sherry's film comedian pal Banjo, modeled after Harpo Marx, though the character's womanizing antics have aged less than gracefully. Throughout, the sure-handed direction of Jean Gordon Ryon keeps the show's many moving parts in balance, allowing each of the show's many cast members their moment to shine.