On this Thursday last, Theatre Memphis hosted a gala celebration marking the arrival of its 500th mainstage production, George Kaufman and Moss Hart's classic comedy The Man Who Came To Dinner. Champagne flowed like tap water, and the mob of tipsy patrons feasted like royalty. There were divinely succulent lamb chops, aperitifs served in chocolate shot glasses, and a stunning array of fruity sorbets, each one more delicious than the last. And then there was the show. Ah, yes, the show. We'll get around to discussing that too, I suppose, if time allows.
Anniversaries are important occasions, no doubt. They are a time for reflection and evaluation as we recall past glories and laugh off our more embarrassing mishaps. But for such events to have any true meaning, they can't just be about the past. They must also become a portal to the future: a chance to crow, You ain't seen nothing yet.
To be brutally honest, The Man Who Came To Dinner is a poor choice on TM's part. It was the last show to be performed at the theater's cramped quarters at the Pink Palace prior to moving into its current facility at Perkins Extended and Southern back in the early '70s. And, yes, a number of key-role actors from that previous production have returned to offer up outstanding performances. That's all well, good, and as it should be, but the downside nearly negates the up. K&H's zany comedy -- peopled by the sort of wonderful eccentrics the two writers knew how to create so well -- has really begun to show its age. The play's leading character, Sheridan Whiteside, a renowned theater critic and radio celebrity based on New York Times drama critic Alexander Woolcott (1887-1943), drops so many names one almost requires a scorecard to keep up.
Thankfully, TM includes just such a card in the program: four pages' worth of brief biographies. Certainly, even the most (pop)culturally challenged will recognize names like H.G. Wells and Arturo Toscanini, but who among us remembers socialite Dorothy di Frasso, lecturer William Phelps, or diver William Beebe? It's not so much that one has to know these names to enjoy the comedy, but it's impossible to enjoy the richness of the humor without a working knowledge of every name the viciously clever Whiteside drops. No list of bios, no matter how thorough, can fill in the gap between simple knowledge and total understanding. Several seasons back, the late Ellis Rabb, Memphis' most celebrated director, solved a similar problem with Richard Brinsley Sheridan's 18th-century comedy The School For Scandal by updating all the show's proper nouns. It worked like a dream, and Sheridan's pithy game of inside baseball became completely accessible. Alas, we're at least 100 years away from a time when a director will feel comfortable performing such a surgery on The Man Who Came To Dinner.
Director Bob Hetherington has done an excellent job of never allowing the show's outsized characters to leave the realm of believability. Given that this script is a slow-boiling farce complete with a herd of rampaging penguins, that's no easy task. In the case of Sheridan Whiteside, the globe-trotting critic whose tongue is a weapon and whose kindness is rivaled only by his pettiness, a certain largess is to be expected. Curiously enough, Bennett Wood, an actor more than capable of reaching out to grasp all of Whiteside's extremes, is remarkably even-keeled. There is a distinct lack of pomp in his circumstances, and from the beginning, we like Whiteside much more than we should. We should enjoy him in much the same way we enjoy Oscar Wilde's more fabulous creations: as someone we'd love to have for dinner on occasion but would prefer to keep away from the children. Wood's greatest gift, however, has always been subtlety, and perhaps he still just needs some time to grow.
Christina Wellford Scott (as outsized actress Lorraine Sheldon) and John Rone (as Beverly Carlton, a character based on Noël Coward) both revel in a certain cartoonishness, and the audience revels with them, while the show's ingenues Pamela Poletti (Maggie) and John "I'd become one of Memphis' best actors if I'd just stop smirking" Moore (Bert) are appropriately grounded.
There is really nothing wrong with TM's Man that time and a shot of Jägermeister won't fix. Too bad it's all about nostalgia and beating down paths that are already well worn. Everything is very safe and tidy, exuding charm while showing not the tiniest shred of courage.
Through June 30th.