Fast-paced, quick-witted banter, physical comedy, and spot-on costumes and sets make Arizona Repertory Theatre’s “The Man Who Came to Dinner” a high-energy frolic into 1939.
The three-act George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart comedy, which opened Wednesday night, is an exceptional platform for the University Arizona students to experience a period parody piece with over-the-top characters.
The play’s character, Sheridan Whiteside, is based on Alexander Woollcott, a powerful critic and radio personality of the time. While on preholiday a lecture tour in the Midwest, Whiteside reluctantly agrees to have dinner at the Stanley home. He slips on a piece of ice on the front stoop and breaks a hip.
As 1939 didn’t have rehab hospitals, Whiteside is forced to recuperate in his hosts’ home. The forceful, dominating personality takes over the household; endears himself to the children and servants; welcomes a stream of telephone calls, telegrams and visitors; and receives outrageous, living multi-legged gifts.
Comedic havoc ensues.
Director Hank Stratton, who played the romantic lead in the 2000 Broadway revival of the play with Tony-winner Nathan Lane in the lead, keeps the havoc flowing, fast but not frenetic.
Sound designer Mylan P. Myers and scenic designer Peter Beudert give the production a sense of place and time. Swing music, crooners and dated commercials that crackle like a 1939 radio broadcast waft through the Marroney Theater. The Stanley living room set is typical of an upper-class Midwestern home of the times, with vintage pieces like the woven rugs, telephone, radio and wheelchair that complement the dated, flocked wallpaper. Be ready to say “Oh, wow” at the beginning of the second act.
Roberto Guajardo, a professional actor and the only non-student in the cast, plays the wheelchair-bound Whiteside. Guajardo delivers the curmudgeon’sacerbic barbs as his pliable, expressive face conveys contempt and sarcasm.
Many of the characters are goo-goo eyed over name-dropping Whiteside. Not secretary, Maggie Cutler. Jordan Letson gives the bright, efficient, popular Maggie a formidable edge and sharpness.
The characters who pop in to see Whiteside are based on Woollcott’s friends, the big names of the era. While a number of the character and cultural references of ’39 soared over the heads of many audience members, especially the college students,the solid performances didn’t rely on period context to be laugh-out-loud funny.
Silvia Vannoy embraced her sexy, slinky husband-hunting character of Lorraine Sheldon, based on actress Gertrude Lawrence. While the detail-rich dresses, suits and sensible shoes of the entire show are exquisite, costume designer Patrick Holt’s sparkly, fitted gowns enhanced the depth (actually, lack thereof) of the character.
Micah Bond as Beverly Carlton — you might notice some similarities to playwright Noël Coward — shows his singing chops and ability to deliver tongue-twisting dialogue.
Bet you’ll laugh at Owen Virgin’s portrayal of Banjo. Virgin’s hopping, bopping physicality is an apt tribute Harpo Marx, on whom Banjo’s character is based.
Less prominent roles add to the frivolity and pacing of the play. Michael Calvoni punctuates scenes as nebbish Dr. Bradley, Whiteside’s physician and a wannabe writer. Carolyn Fluehr and Paul Michael Thomson were engaging and perky as the Stanley children.
Who wouldn’t fall in love with Max Tzannes as the affable newspaperman in the romantic lead, director Stratton’s role on Broadway.
Pushing 2 hours and 45 minutes, with two intermissions, “The Man Who Came to Dinner” has a constant flow of funny characters, quick pacing and clever writing, doesn’t feel long and never drags.
It feels like dessert.