Looking on the Whiteside

And there's pleasure, too, in the skill Nathan Lane applies to Whiteside. Since people who don't know any better have condemned the performance, I should explain: This is extremely good work by an artist who has been miscast. Because Lane is not thin and can produce loud vocal tones, he's been typed as an aggressor, in the vein of Zero Mostel or the creator of this role, Monty Woolley. But his gift is for the comedy of the victim—he's much funnier saying "Sue me!" than threatening, as he does here, to sue somebody else. Naturally, he elects to play the eye of this comic hurricane; Woolley played the whirlwind itself. Nothing is missing; you just aren't swept away. (Test for older theatergoers: Imagine Lane saying "Pay the two dollars." Now imagine Victor Moore or Willie Howard playing Sheridan Whiteside. See what I mean?) The real complaint is not against Lane, but against the pernicious habit of typecasting, which always misses the actor's essence. It barely matters here, since the role provokes its own laughs, with Lane abetting it cunningly.

Another pernicious habit, in theatrical circles, is overrating work that's merely marketable, which partly explains the enthusiasm for Rebecca Gilman's Spinning Into Butter, a harmless and flimsily structured little tragicomedy manqué about the dilemmas stirred up by racism on a college campus. Gilman's not without talent, but her play is so elaborately hedged and contrived that it seems almost as sealed off from reality as Kaufman and Hart—though it lacks any similar gratification, barring a few laughs, since every dramatic hare it starts has vanished long before the hounds are set loose. For a work dealing with such violent emotional matters, it's recklessly inconsequential. It also has a dubious underside, which is the other part of the explanation for its success: The only racists exposed, on the largely white and wealthy ski-party campus of the small New England college where the action occurs, turn out to be the heroine, a young white liberal woman who has just been through a trau-matic year, and a self-hating black student. Even if the experience of these two characters (the second of whom never appears) were presented truthfully, you could hardly say the play dealt with more than a minor subclause of the issue of racism. The play, in fact, contains a satire of itself: Gilman pokes fun at her fic-tional faculty for calling meetings against racism at which only the white students show up; her own play, containing no African American characters, is their theatrical equivalent.

Nathan Lane as Sheridan Whiteside: jests for dinner
photo: Joan Marcus
Nathan Lane as Sheridan Whiteside: jests for dinner


The Man Who Came To Dinner
By Moss Hart & George S. Kaufman
American Airlines (ugh!) Theatre
227 West 42nd Street 212-719-1300

Spinning Into Butter
By Rebecca Gilman
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater
Lincoln Center 212-239-6200

Daniel Sullivan has directed this whorl of dubieties smoothly and attractively, but without giving it much inner conviction; he multiplies the peculiarities of the script, such as a dean's office into which anyone can stroll casually at any time, instead of trying to invent a convention for them. There's a problem, too, at the center of his otherwise skillful cast: Hope Davis, with her pinched voice, fluttery mannerisms, and interruptive emotional focus, can be amusing enough in a secondary comic role, as she was in Nicky Silver's Pterodactyls. Watching her try to play a long, taxing, and complex lead is as frustrating as trying to download Moby Dick to a laptop with a flickering battery. In fairness, her charge might be stronger and steadier if she had more urgent material to transmit.

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