Anyone wondering whether a seminal director of sitcoms can translate half-hour laugh bites into a legit revival of a classic Broadway comedy need only encounter James Burrows’ remarkably inventive and hugely entertaining Steppenwolf Theater production of “The Man Who Came to Dinner.” Perhaps it’s because the son of Abe Burrows (“Guys and Dolls”) knew the maniacally mannered Broadway world of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart personally. Or maybe it’s just all those years hitting the comic mark on “Cheers.” Either way, constant directorial creativity and broad comic strokes here turn a wheezing old script into a hip crowd-pleasing farce full of physical life.
When this satirical tale of urban sophisticates trapped in the Midwest moves to London’s Barbican Center in July, the show will doubtless be the hit of the Inventing America festival (it cheerfully reinforces every Stateside stereotype in the book). Burrows and the entire cast are slated to reprise their work in the U.K.
For Steppenwolf purists, though, last weekend’s Hollywood-on-Lake Michigan opening was a reminder of how far this once-edgy troupe has come from its roots. Instead of Sam Shepard played with minimal budget and legendary intensity, the Steppenwolf was crawling with limos and celebs — many of whom had come to pay homage to one of television’s most powerful figures. It’s also ironic that an ensemble-driven company is producing a slick Broadway star vehicle (in this case , for John Mahoney) that implicitly attacks the Midwest.
Steppenwolf co-founder Gary Sinise used to complain that he got no respect in New York — now his cohorts think nothing of producing a play that relies on the snobby East Coast premise that nothing could be worse for showbiz darlings than being trapped among the rubes of Mesalia, Ohio. My, how times have changed.
Still, there’s no doubting Burrows’ skill as a director — legit or otherwise. Although a classic of its breed, this funny but formulaic 1939 play is not easy to do today, partly because the big-cast,single-room affair is filled with references to any number of long-forgotten cultural figures. Even the lead role of Sheridan Whiteside now has to stand alone for Chicago audiences who do not recognize the name of its model, Alexander Woollcott.
The thinly veiled versions here of Noel Coward, Gertrude Lawrence and Harpo Marx are more familiar — but Burrows still makes sure that there is enough physical shtick to cover up what time may have eroded.
The result is a show in which every character seems to have so many tics that they are all veritable feasts of humorous possibility. Casting with the pitch-perfect eye of someone who does this every week, Burrows seems to have looked at the script and then meticulously filled in every non-funny second with some kind of sight gag.
In this truthful but wacky comic universe, many of the minor players are simply hysterical, especially Ross Lehman’s delightful version of Coward (called Beverly Carlton) and Linda Kimbrough’s self-deprecating turn as a long-suffering nurse.
A generous actor, Mahoney is generally amusing as Whiteside, although he does not entirely fill out the role’s necessarily grandiose proportions. Among the major players, Natalie West’s deliciously deadpan version of Harriet Stanley, Whiteside’s secretary, is the clear standout.
By casting this role with an older actress than is typical, Burrows cleverly raises the stakes when she wants to leave her grumpy employer and get married to a local newspaper man (Rick Snyder, who’s also middle-aged). It’s the kind of revisionist comic invention that marks a delightfully crafted show.