When George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart wrote and then Kaufman directed The Man Who Came to Dinner for its initial October, 1939-July, 1941 run, they were confident audiences would instantly recognize their protagonist, Sheridan Whiteside. They were spoofing Alexander Woollcott, who was known to radio audiences across the land for his mellifluously acid savoir faire. The team's satiric intent was to give the famous gadabout-gadfly a harsh, if eventually affectionate, ribbing.
That's undoubtedly why, in depicting the behind-the-scenes Woollcott--er, Whiteside--they began by demonstrating how insensitive the man could be. They thought to get their laughs by showing how Woollcott employed his sharp tongue to put fools solidly into their places, the brusque way in which he dealt with associates on the assumption that they knew him well enough to forgive his outlandish behavior.
By the year 2000, however, Woollcott has become a familiar name to very few theatergoers, a footnote in show business history. Therefore, as Jerry Zaks' ultimately hilarious and satisfying revival of The Man Who Came to Dinner gets underway, it has something of an uphill battle. The first act, in which Woollcott was once made the butt of a gigantic in-joke, now merely comes across as the long-winded introduction of a tiresome, overgrown baby.
Commentator and wit Sheridan Whiteside, having broken his hip in a fall from a Mesalia, Ohio porch, is forced by a doddering physician to remain in the home of his erstwhile hosts, Mr. and Mrs. Ernest W. Stanley. Tended to by a crisp, long-suffering secretary, Maggie Cutler, and a befuddled nurse called Miss Preen, Whiteside prepares his annual Christmas broadcast while Mr. Stanley's weird sister flits about and various friends travel cross country to crack wise at the invalid's knee. Complications arise when Maggie falls for a local newspaperman, Bert Jefferson, who's written a play worthy of Katherine Cornell. Whiteside, distressed at the thought of losing Maggie after 10 productive years, schemes to bring stage actress and sex predator Lorraine Sheldon to Mesalia so she can get her manicured hands on Jefferson's manuscript as well as on Jefferson and thereby throw a monkey wrench into the impending engagement.
While Sherry nudges this mean-spirited action into play, he's cheered by visits from cronies Beverly Carlton and Banjo, who are meant to stand in for Woollcott pals Noël Coward and Harpo Marx. Whiteside is also exasperated by the Stanleys, a stuffy couple bent on repressing the marital and professional aspirations of their two children, Richard and June. As all of these figures--plus four off-stage penguins and an octopus--populate Tony Walton's sumptuous mansion-on-a-hill set, it looks as if Whiteside, who turns out not to be incapacitated after all, will once again get his selfish way. At the end, with Carlton and Banjo helping him and Sheldon swanning all over the furniture, the lovable curmudgeon does and doesn't prevail. All ends happily nonetheless.
In other words, Kaufman and Hart, who were making Broadway their playground during the '30s with a string of head-spinning yet heartwarming gang comedies, had again unwrapped a work in which every comic seed planted in act one reaches full-bloom by the end of act three. In their writing, the team was out to champion good people and ridicule the crabby; they rarely cared about social consciousness, usually adding no more than a teaspoonful into the fast-paced proceedings. (In The Man Who Came to Dinner, Mr. Stanley is a tyrannical factory owner at loggerheads with a union organizer, who happens to be June's boyfriend.) Their abilities lay in combining skillful dramatic structuring with comic takes on very human characters; Kaufman and Hart tossed as many balls in the air as they could, then showed how deftly those balls could be caught. So while their comedies are great fun to watch, there isn't much in them along the lines of challenging ideas. The authors, both of whom were complicated men with histories of mental depression, may have had many thoughts about life's deeper dilemmas. Given their very different personalities, perhaps they were reluctant to share them with one another and with audiences. When they did get serious--in Merrily We Roll Along, for instance--their work seemed that much more shallow.