COSTA MESA — The word revival suggests exhumation, so forget it.
"The Man Who Came to Dinner," which opened Friday at South Coast Repertory, is a volcanic eruption with nothing funereal about it. This splendid production of the 1939 comedy by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart only proves that splenetic wit and bad behavior are deathless entertainments, as smart and urbane today as they were when Alexander Woollcott, critic and raconteur, single-handedly inspired this blistering portrait of the world's most unwelcome house guest.
I. M. Hobson plays the insufferably supercilious critic and radio host Sheridan (Sherry) Whiteside, who turns the Ohio household of Mr. and Mrs. Stanley upside down when an injured hip from a fall forces an extended stay against his will. Irascible, rude and irreverent, Whiteside creates havoc with his impossible demands, his stream of eccentric friends who come to visit and the nonstop torrent of invective that flows from his hyperactive mouth.
Not content to run roughshod over his intimidated hosts, he decimates the medical profession, incites rebellion in the son and daughter of this once-tranquil home and reserves his most egomaniacal ploy to spoil a romance between his loyal secretary, Maggie Cutler (Laurie Walters), and the local newspaper man, Bert Jefferson (Jeff Allin), with whom she has fallen in love.
In this, Whiteside is not entirely successful, and his eventual discomfiture, matched by some squirmy, unavowed relenting on his part, gives the play the heart that still ticks within it after all these years. Behind the snappy lines and unforgiving pranks glimmers a generosity of spirit that tempers the action and gives us permission to laugh.
William Ludel has staged a brisk, boisterous production in as handsome a setting as we have come to expect from SCR. Cliff Faulkner designed the inviting living-room set, Tom Ruzika the warm lights and Shigeru Yaji the elegant period costumes.
But it is Hobson's Sherry who drives the play with a collection of tics, sharp inflections, gasps and withering looks. He is by turns a raging bull and a big, blustery baby governed by out-sized appetites. This is a spoiled child who thinks nothing of using one friend--sultry actress Lorraine Sheldon (a suave Joan Stuart-Morris)--to implement a petulant, nefarious plot, and to use another friend to undo it (the irrepressible Banjo, played by SCR regular Ron Boussom at his physical-comedy best in a role created by Harpo Marx).
Not that anyone in that bedeviled household has been spared from stooping to equally unorthodox and underhanded methods. Even sobersided Maggie, in a desperate effort to undo the damage Sherry's creating, enlists the help of another of Sherry's friends, the debonair Beverley Carlton (modeled after Noel Coward and played here with great exuberance and finesse by the dexterous Nicholas Hormann).
It all makes for plenty of pixilated fun from a company that enjoys every mad, milling moment of it. Don Took's Dr. Bradley is a comic collection of physical accidents and Sonia Jackson's long-suffering nurse Preen is triumphantly vindicated by her final defiant outburst.
Allin's Bert cuts a Capraesque figure and Walters is unshakably upright as the wronged secretary. Ludel's preeminent achievement is the seamlessness of the play's sense of period and sense of fun, despite two intermissions and nearly three-hour length.
Just as South Coast Rep has become expert at the plays of George Bernard Shaw, it would seem to be fast becoming a fine exponent of those of Kaufman and Hart (after Christopher Hart, son of Moss, who successfully revived "Man Who Came to Dinner" with Hobson last year at Hollywood's West Coast Ensemble, where he is currently presenting "Light Up the Sky"). South Coast's "You Can't Take It With You" a couple of seasons ago was delicious. This "Man Who Came to Dinner" is even tastier. Not too shabby a way to launch its 29th season--and counting.
\o7 "The Man Who Came to Dinner," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Ends Oct. 11. $25-$34; (714) 957-4033. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes. \f7 Mary Anne McGarry: Mrs. Stanley
John-David Keller: Mr. Stanley
Benjamin Livingston: Richard Stanley
Rebecca Clark: June Stanley
Marnie Crossen: Harriet Stanley
John Ellington: John, the butler
Hisa Takakuwa: Sarah, the cook
Julie Haber: Mrs. Dexter
Bonnie Mikoleit: Mrs. McCutcheon
Laurie Walters: Maggie Cutler
Sonia Jackson: Miss Preen, the nurse
Don Took: Dr. Bradley
I. M. Hobson: Sheridan Whiteside
Jeff Allin: Bert Jefferson
Art Koustik: Prof. Metz
Joan Stuart-Morris: Lorraine Sheldon
Nicholas Hormann: Beverley Carlton
Ron Boussom: Banjo
A revival of the 1939 comedy by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. Director William Ludel. Set Cliff Faulkner. Lights Tom Ruzika. Costumes Shigeru Yaji. Wigmaster Vikki Woods. Production manager Edward Lapine. Stage manager Bonnie Lorenger. Assistant stage manager Julie Haber.