Critical Gas

George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart wrote some of the best comedies of their era, teaming up in the 1930s and 1940s to produce, among other hits, the Pulitzer Prize-winning You Can't Take It With You, which later became one of Frank Capra's greatest movies. Hart was long on plot, and Kaufman's forte was sarcastic repartee--otherwise known as the wisecrack. It's easy to see Kaufman's influence in the Marx Brothers comedies The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers. And it's equally easy to enjoy how Hunger Artists director Joan Staniunas has used the manic physical comedy of the Marx Brothers to embroider her masterful production of Kaufman and Hart's The Man Who Came to Dinner. This is a knowing, winking, funny production, with plenty of inside jokes and pop-culture allusions. It's not perfect--some of the minor roles need work. But the majors are in a league of their own.

The story concerns the antics of New York arts critic Sheridan Whiteside, who knows simply everyone, darling. The character is based on New York drama critic Alexander Woollcott, a member of the fabled Algonquin Roundtable along with Kaufman and such literary lights as Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley. Woollcott played the role himself until suffering the first of a series of heart attacks, and in writing the play, Hart and Kaufman clearly had some fun with their friend.

On a speaking tour in the Midwest, Sheri and his secretary, Maggie, are invited to dinner at a local businessman's house. When Sheri slips on the ice and injures his hip, he must lay up for several weeks at the Stanleys', and he quickly takes over the place, making the locals jump to his imperious orders. Sheri is the friend of celebrities and princes all over the world, and the messages and gifts from such VIPs as H.G. Wells, Mahatma Ghandi and Catherine Cornell just roll in, while the Stanleys are banished to their upstairs bedrooms.

As nasty as Sheri is to his hosts, he is kindly to the servants, whose work he respects. And though his manner with Maggie is often abrasive, she gives as good as she gets, and they are obviously very fond of each other. Until, that is, Maggie falls in love with a local newspaperman. Threatened with the loss of his secretary, the woman upon whom he utterly depends, Sheri plots to save her from herself--make that to save her for himself. It seems dashing journalist Bert Jefferson has written a play, so Sheri invites high-class trollop Lorraine Sheldon to town, hoping the lusty actress will unleash her highly developed talents on the unsuspecting Bert. Maggie has a few tricks of her own, but in the end only Sheri can leash up Lorraine's talents and give Maggie back her Bert.

Meanwhile, the devilish Mr. Whiteside delights in managing everybody's life. He convinces young Richard Stanley to run off and seek his fortune as a photographer and young Harriet Stanley (Jackie Elio is charming in all her high-pitched squeakiness) to marry the man she loves--a union agitator in her father's factory. He even coaxes the Stanleys' cook and butler to desert their employers and join his staff in New York. The thing is, except for his selfishness over Maggie, he's usually right about the others around him, and the audience enters into the conspiracy against the Stanleys with great glee.

As Whiteside, Stephen Maestas heads the cast with a good deal more realism than is usual in the role. He's funny because he's so close to us--though a little smarter, a lot wittier and more ingeniously wicked. Maestas projects a winning devilry and a covert largesse that are simply irresistible. Lisa Marie Mumpton is perfect as Maggie--sophisticated, bright and honest. Antonia Freeland is stunning as the glamorous vamp Lorraine, and it's a tribute to her accomplished performance that we hate her so very, very much.

But the most amusing performer of the evening is the versatile Frank Oden in three roles: as eminent entomologist Professor Metz, as the actor/writer Beverly Carlton, and especially as the Hollywood comic Banjo (styled by Hart and Kaufman after fellow Algonquiner Harpo Marx). Oden and director Staniunas lift dozens of physical comedy tricks from the movies and vaudeville, and Oden never misses a beat. It's not easy to pull these moves off, but he does it as breezily as if he had invented them.

Staniunas keeps the pace breakneck, and even the lesser performances snap along so fast that the viewer barely has time to notice an amateurish reading here or an awkward movement there. The overall effect is breathless, belligerent fun, refreshing because it's liberally laced with the milk of human kindness--poured over the acid wit of maestro Kaufman.

The Man Who Came to Dinner, through August 31 at Margery Reed Hall, on the University of Denver campus, 893-5438.

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