| Jayne Ruppert, Chuck Weed, and Peter Bolger|
Beaverton Civic Theatre’s ambitious fall offering of The Man Who Came to Dinner is a huge show in many respects. Start with the playwrights – Pulitzer Prize winners George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, who teamed up on this and several other much-loved works of the American stage. Add in a massive cast, with 23 players who fill 32 roles. Top it off with a l-o-n-g script - it’s a sprawling, three-act comedy with two intermissions, three hours plus of lots of dialogue peppered with countless laugh lines and a hefty dose of physical comedy (Kaufman also wrote for the Marx Brothers, and it shows). Director Matt Gibson must have faced some profound challenges when it came time to cast his show – a classic laden with a few dream leads and lots of hilarious supporting roles that inevitably draws a plethora of eager and able auditioners, and he managed to snag a few of the area’s best comic actors for his show.
The play is set in the late 1930s in the upscale Stanley home in Mesalia, Ohio. The story (and the universe, in the opinion of the main character) revolves around the plight of Sheridan Whiteside, an utterly self-centered radio personality on a speaking tour who injures himself slipping on ice outside the Stanley home. Soon after the Stanleys bring him into their home to recuperate, they discover that Sheridan is the houseguest from hell. The Stanleys take refuge upstairs after Sheridan takes over their living room, den, telephone, and staff for the two-week period leading up to Christmas morning. When not kvetching at his long-suffering assistant Maggie, berating his nurse and doctor, and offering unsolicited advice to family members, he entertains a series of guests including several paroled ex-cons and some extraordinarily eccentric show biz types. While he thoroughly alienates Mr. and Mrs. Stanley, he does bond with the two Stanley children, the bizarre Aunt Harriet, the household staff, and local newspaper man/aspiring playwright Bert Jefferson. When Maggie finds romance with Bert and the two become engaged, Whiteside commits the ultimate transgression, using subterfuge to break them up rather than lose his assistant. Act III is laden with surprises, and things work out pretty well, but with a final twist that leaves the family and the audience with a parting groan.
With such a large cast it’s only possible to recognize a few of the actors – starting with Chuck Weed’s fun and flexible take on Whiteside. As illustrated by his choice of friends/allies, Whiteside has no tolerance for Mid-Western pretentious mores, and Weed does a lovely job of switching between snidely pompous iconoclast, manipulative and overbearing boss, and enthusiastic supporter of the different, downtrodden and powerless (artists, actors, household help, children, and criminals). Erin Bickler’s Maggie is pitch-perfect as the brash, wisecracking assistant who takes a lot but never buckles – she reminds me of such 30s/40s comediennes as Joan Davis.
Two local comic heroes, Les Ico and Daniel Rhovan, live up to their hype and then some. Ico’s “Banjo” (Groucho? Harpo?) is a marvel of timing, delivery, and physicality – well worth waiting for, as he doesn’t appear until late in the play. Rhovan is equally memorable as the flamboyant “Beverly Carlton” (based on Noel Coward). Virginia Kincaid once again earns my “most disturbing” award as Aunt Harriet – another character with a big Act III payoff. Speaking of Act III payoffs, watch Patricia Alston as actress Lorraine Sheldon, who has clearly earned her loose-living reputation as well as her final disposition. For me, the real sleeper comic performance comes from Jayne Ruppert as the harassed yet stoic nurse, Miss Preen. Ruppert finds just the right level of deadpan desperation, and her restraint pays off with a solid round of applause when she finally lets it all out.
Director Gibson places 100% of the action in a detailed living room set, which allows him to eliminate lengthy scene changes that could slow down the action, and his pacing is brisk. Pam Taylor’s costume design is particularly effective, nicely capturing the 1930s era; the women’s dresses are particularly accurate, and lend a lot to the ambience.
Be prepared - even with minimal scene changes, The Man Who Came to Dinner is still a long show. I noticed a few audience members leaving after each intermission – a terrible decision, in my opinion, since Act III pays off so well – hang in there!
Beaverton Civic Theatre’s production of The Man Who Came to Dinner runs through Saturday, November 23d at the Beaverton City Library Auditorium, with 7:30 pm shows on Friday and Saturday and a 2:00 pm matinee on Sundays.