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Theater Review : A Perfect Gentleman at 'Dinner' in Newport

August 25, 1994|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEWPORT BEACH — When Kaufman and Hart wrote a play, the partner who came up with the idea was credited first. Thus, Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman's "The Man Who Came to Dinner," at the Newport Theatre Arts Center, was Hart's idea.

In reality, it was critic Alexander Woollcott's idea when, after exerting a two-week stranglehold on Hart's home hospitality, he asked, "Why don't you write a play for me?"

The partners did, but Woollcott wasn't secure enough to play himself, so the part went to an unknown college drama teacher named Monty Woolley (and launched him on a long stage and film career). Since then the role has fallen to portly gentlemen with full white beards and an ability to be irascible but lovable.

Robert Kokol, as Sheridan Whiteside in this production, couldn't be better, as wild and Woolley as they come. It's a difficult role to make work, with its sharp comic flights shaded by an underlying gentleness. Kokol sparkles as though to the bad manner born. If only he didn't mispronounce Pago Pago. Whiteside knows better.

Director Jack Millis has put a jewel of a production around Kokol. Although Bill Cole's prop-deficient period living-room setting looks as though the Stanley family moved in the day before minus their household goods, it's a serviceable framework for the small core of good performances that make the staging come to life.

Manny Siegall is properly stuffy and narrow-minded as the small-town bigwig who is playing unwilling host to the famous Whiteside, and Tom Hardy is fine as the bumbling surgeon who attends the star, whose hip injury has forced his terrifying personality upon the small-town household.

Mike Smith and Megan Endicott couldn't be more ideally matched to the period as the Stanley son and daughter, and Sally Norton is solid as Harriet, the dingy Stanley aunt with a lurid past.

Whiteside's coterie really shines.

Laura DeMilita is wonderful as his secretary, Maggie, and Jonathan Kass excellent as the small-town editor she falls for. Della Lisi has a good sense of the stardom surrounding her character, Lorraine Sheldon, who was based on Gertrude Lawrence.

Beverly Carlton is based on Noel Coward, a Wollcott contemporary, as are all the characters, and is played with plummy elan by John Arthur. Banjo, the Harpo Marx character, is given just the right bounce by Mitchell Nunn. Alexandra Hoover stands out as the continually disintegrating nurse Miss Preen.

*

The supporting cast doesn't always rise to the same level.

Ruth Siegall's Mrs. Stanley fidgets in a paroxysm of giddiness that is disconcerting. And the director must not have been watching Joshua Wright at rehearsal. With three inconsequential walk-ons, Wright walks like Groucho and leers seductively at Lorraine Sheldon, bumps into doors and otherwise misbehaves in a most unprofessional manner, rude to his fellow actors and with no concern whatever for a good production of an American classic.

* "The Man Who Came to Dinner," Newport Theatre Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Ends Sunday. $13. (714) 631-0288. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes. Robert Kokol: Sheridan Whiteside

Laura DeMilita: Maggie Cutler

Jonathan Kass: Bert Jefferson

Della Lisi: Lorraine Sheldon

John Arthur: Beverly Carlton

Mitchell Nunn: Banjo

Alexandra Hoover: Miss Preen

Mike Smith: Richard Stanley

Megan Endicott: June Stanley

Sally Norton: Harriet Stanley

Manny Siegall: Mr. Stanley

Ruth Siegall: Mrs. Stanley

Tom Hardy: Dr. Bradley

A Newport Theatre Arts Center production of the Moss Hart & George S. Kaufman comedy, produced by Lynn Beck and Brenda Abshear. Directed by Jack Millis. Scenic design: Bill Cole. Costume design: Tom Phillips. Lighting design: Alfred Ronquillo. Stage manager: Bronson.

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