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'Dinner' Is Almost Ready in Huntington

Theater review: Production boasts several fine moments, but some ingredients need attention.

March 14, 1997|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

HUNTINGTON BEACH — For all of the many George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart comedies written during the '30s and '40s, billing depended on whose idea it was. With "The Man Who Came to Dinner," Hart had top billing because the play was suggested by a visit to his Bucks County, Pa., home by then radio personality Alexander Woollcott. Woollcott was obnoxious, imperious and impossible to get rid of.

The play tells the tale of a mean-mouthed but basically kindly radio star who slips on ice leaving the Stanleys' home in Mesalia, Ohio, requiring his further domestic intrusion for a couple of weeks.

Echoing reality, the play was a perfect foil to skewer the despotic Woollcott, along with others in his high-powered orbit, such as Noel Coward, Gertrude Lawrence and Harpo Marx. And the play is almost foolproof, which has over the past six decades made it one of the most produced plays in the catalog.

Notice the "almost." Even in the best-constructed plays, there can be potholes to trip a director. For the most part, director Gregory Cohen trips lightly through the script in his revival at Huntington Beach Playhouse. He keeps the tempos nearly as crisp as they should be, maintains a nice feeling of period and, with few exceptions, keeps his actors restrained and realistic.

He does stumble a couple of times. Cohen allows Dan Lookabill, as Mr. Stanley, the unwilling and unhappy Midwestern host, to play his anger over the top, when a slow-burning inner wrath would work better.

*

Cohen also allows Sharyn Case--as Lorraine Sheldon, the Lawrence sendup--to exaggerate the stereotypical actress aspects of the character rather than the glamorous, hypnotic charisma it should have. Case is miscast in the role for several other reasons, lack of chic being one of them.

Cohen really comes a cropper by casting the same actor as Dr. Metz (Albert Einstein), Beverly Carlton (Coward) and Banjo (Marx). Under more circumspect direction, Dean Edward might have been able to pull off all three, but his Metz is a cartoon; he's apparently uncomfortable with Beverly's chic--as flouncy as Lorraine's should be--and he walks through his Banjo without much humor.

And there is no reason for Cohen's dressing Banjo in Harpo Marx's stage attire, including the curly blond wig. Marx, like all clowns, never spoke while in costume and was never seen offstage in costume. Other audiences have never had a problem figuring out who Banjo is standing in for.

*

As Sheridan Whiteside, the Woollcott character, Jim McElenney captures both the crusty surface Whiteside presents to the public and the mushy sweet center he sometimes lets his friends see. He does so with ease and flair; it's a charming performance.

Shirley Romano is very good giving a new twist to Whiteside's long-suffering nurse, sobbing balefully throughout instead of being primly superior.

Yvonne Houssels makes her Mrs. Stanley work beautifully, and the Stanley kids are well-portrayed by Todd Svoboda and Loriann C. Beck-Gilmore. Evelyn Canedy also scores as the mysterious Harriet Stanley, finally recognized by Whiteside to Mr. Stanley's chagrin.

*

The performances that take the prize, though, for their sense of period, both theatrically and personally, belong to Christi Sweeney as Whiteside's secretary, Maggie, and Warren Herr as Bert Jefferson, the local newspaperman Maggie falls for, causing Whiteside to stir things up once too often. They're charmers and keep things lively when they're on.

* "The Man Who Came to Dinner," Huntington Beach Playhouse, 7111 Talbert Ave., Huntington Beach. Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. Ends March 23. $10-$13. (714) 375-0696. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

"The Man Who Came to Dinner,"

Jim McElenney: Sheridan Whiteside

Dan Lookabill: Mr. Stanley

Yvonne Houssels: Mrs. Stanley

Christi Sweeney: Maggie Cutler

Warren Herr: Bert Jefferson

Todd Svoboda: Richard Stanley

Loriann C. Beck-Gilmore: June Stanley

Sharyn Case: Lorraine Sheldon

Shirley Romano: Miss Preen

Evelyn Canedy: Harriet Stanley

Dean Edward: Professor Metz, Beverly Carlton, Banjo

A Huntington Beach Playhouse production of the classic Moss Hart-George S. Kaufman comedy. Produced by Bill and Terri Verhaegen. Directed by Gregory Cohen. Scenic design: Gregory Cohen, Bill and Terri Verhaegen. Lighting design: Terri Verhaegen. Special effects: Charles Varney. Stage manager: Susan Fosse.

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