By happy happenstance, the Roundabout Theater Co. gets to inaugurate its snazzy new restoration of a charming old theater with a snazzy new production of a charming old play. Construction problems delayed the opening of the theater in the spring, so instead of gloomy old "Uncle Vanya," Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman's zany "The Man Who Came to Dinner" is warming up the long-cold boards at the former Selwyn Theater on 42nd Street (now, alas, dubiously named the American Airlines Theater).
By happy happenstance, the Roundabout Theater Co. gets to inaugurate its snazzy new restoration of a charming old theater with a snazzy new production of a charming old play. Construction problems delayed the opening of the theater in the spring, so instead of gloomy old “Uncle Vanya,” Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s zany “The Man Who Came to Dinner” is warming up the long-cold boards at the former Selwyn Theater on 42nd Street (now, alas, dubiously named the American Airlines Theater).
Nathan Lane, an actor who makes virtually every role he plays seem like a role he was born to play, is the splendidly seething, delightfully acerbic center of Jerry Zaks’ splashy production of the 1939 comedy. In slicked hair, owlish eyeglasses and silk smoking jackets, he’s a living Peter Arno cartoon, and thoroughly at home with the verbal strafing that streams from the mouth of the wheelchair-bound Sheridan Whiteside, the curmudgeonly cultural pontificator who was not so loosely based on (and later played by) Alexander Woollcott. Sherry’s mixture of childish petulance and beautifully spoken bile is rendered with delicious variety and old-fashioned theatrical flair by Lane, the consummate stage comedian of our era nestling happily into a consummate comic role from another.
Mr. Whiteside has met with a hip-crippling accident on a nefarious Midwestern doorstep, and now this urbane urban refugee has become the captive — as well as the marquee attraction — of a respectable small-town Ohio family. While Whiteside upends the family equilibrium with his imperious commands and a stream of oddball visitors, the slender plot at the center of the play concerns the romance that blooms between Whiteside’s gal Friday Maggie Cutler (Harriet Harris) and the squeaky-clean local journalist Bert Jefferson (Hank Stratton), a relationship that the peevish Whiteside is anxious to nip in the bud lest it deprive him of his trusty assistant.
Judged by today’s standards, the play’s classic three-act structure undeniably feels somewhat attenuated. Despite Kaufman & Hart’s steady stream of divertingly nasty cracks (impressively embellished here by Messrs. Lane & Zaks), the play motors a touch laboriously toward its final punch line. So is it dated? Certainly, but in the end rather delightfully.
Much of the charm of Zaks’ production resides in its affectionate embrace of the stylistic hallmarks of a period that has become permanently imprinted in the cultural zeitgeist. The ubiquity of AMC, TCM and many millions of VCRs insures that the milieu of the play is registered in our collective memory bank in two-dimensional black-and-white, so it’s nice to see it brought back to Technicolor life onstage.
The inestimably talented Tony Walton has rendered the suburban home of Mr. and Mrs. Stanley in a somewhat preposterously lavish manner, but his glossy set wittily echoes the interior of the theater itself. And costume designer William Ivey Long is so blissfully at home in the period that each peak lapel and padded shoulder seems imprinted with the designer’s affectionate care.
The production has also been felicitously cast with an eye toward honoring period style. As Maggie, the wry, genial Harriet Harris is delectable (she might almost have been cast for her name alone — surely Harriet Harris is the name of a Rosalind Russell character?). Harris’ nervous gestures, dry delivery and occasional burst of tremulous tenderness add up to a perfect re-creation of a ’30s-picture archetype: the working girl whose hard-bitten wisecracks and mannish shoulderpads belie a heart that’s yearning to fall in love.
Whiteside’s phalanx of increasingly unwilling caretakers are also sharply and snappily played. Mary Catherine Wright is a perfectly sour Miss Preen, the nurse driven to distraction by her recalcitrant patient; Linda Stephens and Terry Beaver are archly woebegone as Mr. and Mrs. Stanley, Zach Shaffer and Ruby Holbrook perkily appealing as their kids. William Duell, a splendid character actor whose wide eyes and gaping mouth draw instant smiles, is well cast as the milquetoast local doctor with literary aspirations. The always treasurable Julie Halston makes her Broadway debut, all too briefly, as an excitable local lady who’s come to stargaze.
Among Whiteside’s visiting cohorts from the world of the swells, Byron Jennings makes a crisply suave Beverly Carlton, Kaufman & Hart’s facsimile of Noel Coward, while Lewis J. Stadlen vamps a little too exhaustingly through the Harpo Marx role of Banjo (his Harpo Marx is more Jimmy Durante than anyone else). As Lorraine Sheldon, the great lady of the theater whose aid Whiteside enlists to break up Maggie’s romance, Jean Smart works diligently and effectively, but never quite appears at ease in the role; she strains for laughs that could be more subtly engineered.
But even the production’s occasional air of industry and Kaufman & Hart’s more dubious bits of wackiness (Whiteside’s menagerie, for example, never earns much of a payoff) can be greeted with a patient shrug. Most stage comedies these days are mere appetizers, and meager ones at that; “The Man Who Came to Dinner” may have its longueurs between its tastiest comic morsels, but at least it supplies a full meal.