Written by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart in 1939, The Man Who Came to Dinner is about an insufferable guest. The genesis of the play was a conversation about a visit to Hart by Alexander Woollcott, a famed critic and writer of the time, who was endlessly demanding during his stay and noted in the guestbook upon leaving, "This is to certify that I had one of the most unpleasant times I ever spent." Luckily, his famous guest hadn't broken his leg and been forced to stay indefinitely, Hart observed ruefully to Kaufman, and in that instant, the irascible Sheridan Whiteside was born.
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Wealthy factory owner Earnest W. Stanley lives in a small Ohio town called Mesalia. As the play opens, his household is all a-twitter about their famous guest: Whiteside, who, having slipped on the ice outside the front door and hurt his hip, will be staying with them for a while. But when a nurse wheels him out in his wheelchair, Whiteside himself is far less pleased. "I may vomit," he observes to the hopeful and star-struck assembly. And then he proceeds to lay down the rules: Since he'll be working in the living room and the library, no one else can enter them for the duration of his stay. Nor can anyone use the phone. He hands Mrs. Stanley the menu for the lunch he'd like served to the five guests he's just invited, and informs Mr. Stanley that he'll be suing him for $150,000.
And so Whiteside sets up court and carries on with his life, preparing for his famed radio addresses, receiving gifts that include an Egyptian mummy, calf's foot jelly, a box of penguins and a scientific experiment involving thousands of cockroaches. He encourages the Stanleys' daughter to elope with the union organizer her father hates, and suggests to their son that he run off and pursue the photography career he yearns for. But Whiteside goes too far when he decides to destroy the budding romance between his secretary, Maggie Cutler, and local journalist Bert Jefferson. Jefferson has written a play, and Whiteside entices a ravenous and narcissistic star named Lorraine Sheldon to the house to distract Jefferson's attention with promises that she'll star in it. What he doesn't realize is that Maggie genuinely loves Jefferson — and that he himself genuinely needs Maggie.
The Man Who Came to Dinner
Presented by Spotlight Theatre Company through December 22, the John Hand Theater, 7653 East First Place, 720-880-8727, www.thisisspotlight.org.
People are always popping on to perform comic bits, toss off one-liners and serve as the butt of Whiteside's endless barrage of insults. Whiteside himself is one of those larger-than-life, swift-tongued 1930s wits — Noel Coward with more malice and quite a lot more girth. Much of the humor relies on his nastiness and name-dropping. There are also many contemporary references, some of which — H.G Wells, Felix Frankfurter, Jascha Heifetz, Haile Selassie, Katharine Cornell, Elsa Schiaparelli, Lunt and Fontanne — might sail right by contemporary audiences, though it is a hoot to hear Whiteside refer to Mahatma Gandhi fondly as "BooBoo." The plot is silly, but the plotting is well-contrived and amusing.
There are 23 characters in this play — played in this Spotlight Theatre production by twenty actors. To carry off a piece as stylized as this, you need actors with a lot of poise and moxie, and much of the acting here is at the level of good community theater. Dan Connell has Whiteside's languid sarcasm down pat, but I'd like to have seen more animation from him. Johanna Jaquith's performance as smart working girl Maggie is the best of the evening; Linda Suttle is wonderfully and genially creepy as mad Harriet Stanley. Playing Nurse Preen, Bonnie Green has a terrific bit of dialogue, and she delivers it well: "I am not only walking out on this case, Mr. Whiteside, I am leaving the nursing profession. I became a nurse because...ever since I was a little girl, I was filled with the idea of serving a suffering humanity. After one month with you, Mr. Whiteside, I am going to work in a munitions factory. From now on, anything I can do to help exterminate the human race will fill me with the greatest of pleasure. If Florence Nightingale had ever nursed you, Mr. Whiteside, she would have married Jack the Ripper instead of founding the Red Cross."