Nothing but praise is suggested by pointing out that The Man Who Came to Dinner — one of the greatest American stage comedies of the giddy, comedy-hungry 1930s — is also the quintessential summer stock/regional theater/high school drama club audience-pleaser. The ebullient 1939 farce by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, about a big-name bicoastal celebrity whose temporary residence wreaks havoc in the home of a piteously bourgeois Ohio family, is filled with knowing chirps and trills about the foibles of the gossiped-about and famous. But at heart it’s a sturdy Midwestern clapboard of a play, classically built on a three-act foundation of escalating mayhem. It’s festooned with sharply drawn, audition-and-die-for roles (the playwrights threw in characters modeled on their famous friends Noel Coward, Harpo Marx, and Gertrude Lawrence). And it requires the services of a large backstage army — jobs for every kid who signs up! — to fulfill the unusual set, prop, and costume requirements: Christmas tree, mummy case, piano, crate ostensibly filled with penguins, chorus of choirboys, etc.
The show is, thus, pretty much talent-proof. So if even a weak production of The Man Who Came to Dinner is supported by the theatrical greatness of Kaufman and Hart, how much more satisfying to see the new Roundabout Theatre Company revival, directed with a shiny 1930s exuberance by Jerry Zaks, and starring every drama club’s cleverest cut-up, Nathan Lane, as the man in question, Sheridan Whiteside.
Despite time-dated references and an antiquarian family structure (Father actually claims to know best), Dinner is as fresh a send-up as an SNL sketch and has an even more inspired plot. (Having slipped on the ice outside the home of his heartland dinner hosts, Whiteside is forced to remain for a spell, in a wheelchair, in darkest Ohio.) And Zaks, wisely maintaining uncondescending respect for the play’s conventions, stages his revival like the happiest, biggest-budget regional production ever.
Moss Hart based Whiteside on his celebrity friend Alexander Woollcott, the era’s reigning theater critic, radio personality, and high-maintenance personage. Lane’s Whiteside role model is less specific — perhaps a meld of every blusterer he has ever played — and he puffs with fine, if undifferentiated, apoplectic frustration. But Dinner belongs to Jean Smart, costarring as drama diva Lorraine Sheldon (”They do say she set fire to her mother … ”).
When has a production not belonged to Designing Women’s Smart, really, from her Oscar-deserving turn in Guinevere to her hilarious Emmy-nominated TV guest spot for last season’s Frasier? While Byron Jennings (as Coward-like Beverly Carlton) and Lewis J. Stadlen (as Harpo-esque Banjo) do easy-to-love caricatures, Smart sweeps across the stage, in a swanning demonstration of ultimate showbiz phoniness. That she gleefully, surely steals this charming bandbox production is only right: Isn’t that always how summer-stock stars make it big on Broadway? B+