Nathan Lane inThe Man Who Came to Dinner(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Nathan Lane in
The Man Who Came to Dinner
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
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.

Which gets back to the wrinkles in Zaks' Man Who Came to Dinner. Having had a run of flops recently--none of them mentioned in his Stagebill bio--the director has a lot riding on this project. And with the first-act problems Kaufman and Hart drop in his lap, he a first looks to have been stymied yet again. What could he do, for instance with the childish Whiteside? First heard yelling caustic remarks from off stage, the wheelchair-bound figure is at last seen when he's pushed out, gazes at the Mesalia dupes gathered expectantly around him, and declares: "I may vomit." The witless remark sets the tone for his attitude towards everyone during the act.

Harriet Harris and Hank Strattonin The Man Who Came to Dinner(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Harriet Harris and Hank Stratton
in The Man Who Came to Dinner
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Not only is Zaks undone by these nasty outbursts, he also seems initially to have shot himself in the foot through miscasting. Nathan Lane, bearded and smart in a smoking jacket, might seem the ideal choice for Whiteside, but in the play's early stages he does nothing to leaven Whiteside's acrimony--and, around him, generally reliable actors are at a loss. Harriet Harris as Maggie is efficient enough, but she's hampered in the romance department by appearing to be somewhat older than--and slightly taller than--Hank Stratton, who plays Jefferson. No sparks fly between them. As the Stanley children Zach Shaffer and May Catherine Garrison lack charm and spunk. Mary Catherine Wright, as Miss Preen, is even more disappointing; she appears not to understand that portraying a lackluster character doesn't require being lackluster.

If so many usually creative actors--also including Stephen deRosa and Julie Halston--are only so-so, isn't director Zaks the real culprit? He sure is. Yet he comes marvelously right in acts two and three, with the arrival of three expert comic actors: Jean Smart, Byron Jennings, and Lewis J. Stadlen. Having cast them impeccably, Zaks also knows precisely how to direct them--and, for the rest of the play, he's admirably back on form. As a result The Man Who Came to Dinner is suddenly and lastingly the whiz-bang laugh riot Kaufman and Hart intended.

Smart is Lorraine Sheldon, an actress who has acquired glamour the hard way but has learned to embody it gracefully, except when venality gets in the way and she becomes no more dignified than a clown dropping his pants.. From time to time during the course of her own phony histrionics and Whiteside's attacks on her fragile sangfroid, Lorraine feels the need to cry but can't force out any tears. It's a comic notion not mentioned in the text but made hugely funny by Smart, who lives up to her name in William Ivey Long's modish traveling suits and evening gowns. Jennings, as the Noël Coward-like Beverly Carlton, is the very essence of polish and amusement. He doesn't make a false step, and is curiously moving when he goes to the piano to play and sing "What Am I to Do," the Cole Porter's send-up of darling Noël's high-style composing that Kaufman and Hart were shrewd enough to commission.

Superlative as these two are, it's Stadlen, bringing Banjo to vibrant life, who may have already wrapped up the supporting actor Tony to be conferred next spring. Stadlen has shared the stage with Lane three times previously--in Laughter on the 23rd Floor, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and Mizlansky-Zilinsky. Here, he gets the upper hand on his frequent partner through the sheer joy of his performing, brilliantly building Banjo into a combination of Jimmy Durante, Bert Lahr, Jack Benny, and at least three of the Marx Brothers. (Remember: Stadlen was a gut-busting Groucho a few decades back in ). Incidentally, the Durante imitation comes into play when Stadlen sings an a cappella version of the late comedian's "Did You Ever Have the Feeling You Wanted to Go," which was not in the Kaufman-Hart script but was added to the Julius J. Epstein-Philip G. Epstein screenplay. Striding with widely swinging arms across the stage, smiling the lascivious smile of a soused Cupid, using a battery of soprano and bass voices, Stadlen reaches a new career peak with this assignment. Maybe the best word to describe his victory is: Wow!

Stadlen, Smart and Jennings not only draw attention to their own talents, but they fire up Lane as well. In no time at all, Lane is speaking in that amusing style he's patented, uttering lines in a breathless, high register as if he's so astounded at the idiocy around him that his lungs are collapsing. He shouts into the phone at operators, he gets out of his chair to do some amusing aerobics, he guffaws at Banjo's antics. When Lane does breathe, it's to indicate Whiteside's dawning humanity. What had looked like Lane's first stage misfire becomes another of his lengthening string of triumphs.

Lane, Zaks and associates make the 180-degree turn from somber to hilarious as if it were one of the wheelies Whiteside adeptly executes in his chair. It's almost possible to forget that the opening act of The Man Who Came to Dinner sits there as inertly as a man with a broken hip, since the rest of the classic comedy rolls so merrily along.