Sealed tight against reality, The Man Who Came to Dinner is an immaculately structured anarchy. Everything in it is perfectly, symmetrically implausible, but its symmetrical non-surprises come dressed in an outrageous, purplish verbal fabric that perfectly conceals their conventionality. To write something this purely fictive, you need your feet firmly planted on the ground and your eyes wide open, like Kaufman and Hart: If a famous radio personality, compelled to dine at the home of a wealthy small-town family, slipped on an icy doorstep, fractured his hip, and had to stay there a month, this is exactly what would transpire—granting that no such home and no such people could possibly exist. In its unreality, the play is innocent; in its smart-aleck verbal sassiness, it’s sophisticated. The disparity between the two produces a syncopated energy that keeps it fresh even today, when radio personalities have been reduced to hortatory bigots, and most of the famous names the play trades on, like Kit Cornell and William Beebe, are meaningless to the audience.
The most famous name of all back then, and the least familiar today, is the one that goes ostentatiously unmentioned: Alexander Woollcott. Drama critic, radio raconteur, professional celebrity, and cylinder-shaped, squeaky-voiced, self-appointed head of the Algonquin Round Table, Woollcott was as beloved nationally as he was mocked and feared by his intimates. (“Nero in a pinafore,” Edna Ferber once called him.) His popularity, especially with middle-class clubwomen, was the more remarkable since he was a born outsider. Vaguely effeminate in appearance (he had an undescended testicle and seems never to have consummated any sort of sexual relationship), he was archly turn-of-the-century in both his ornate phraseology and his tastes—sentimental fiction, Gilbert and Sullivan, parlor games, the acting of Mrs. Fiske. At the same time, the ornate phrases masked a blunt cruelty, the flossy tastes an unrelenting competitiveness, that seemed almost schizoid in the context of his syrupy gushings over Christmas, American democracy, and the latest works of artists on his favored list. When rebuked for his contradictions or blocked from his pleasures, he went into tantrums that could terrify even those closest to him: He was probably bipolar as well as monorchid.
Kaufman and Hart’s comedy doesn’t explore the darker side of this curious figure (a friend of both who himself once collaborated on a play with Kaufman). It simply plunks him down in his wheelchair, in the home of a couple to whom he is antipathetic, and builds a mechanically efficient bedlam out of the results. Whiteside, a/k/a Woollcott, lures away the couple’s cook, plays Friar Laurence to their daughter’s romance with a union organizer (his host owns the factory being organized), and prompts their son to run off and find himself. At the same time, Whiteside’s cool, irreplaceable secretary falls for the local newspaper editor, so that her employer has to scheme, first, to break up the romance, and then to repair when he realizes the harm he’s doing. Whiteside’s perception of a skeleton in the family’s closet wins him the first battle; an 11th-hour gift of the kind we’ve seen him receive all through rescues faithful Maggie’s love affair. Innocent of plausibility, the action seems to take place in a magical, enclosed world, like the roach farm Whiteside receives from an entomologist friend early on, full of constant scurrying about and rich with previously unheard sounds. Woollcott’s late-Victorian floridity inspired the authors to their own glorious excess of expression; it’s been a long time since a Broadway audience laughed this much at the words of a play.
Audiences get more than words to enjoy at the attractively restored Selwyn Theatre, which some corporate pigs, of the kind ridiculed in the play through Whiteside’s host, have compelled the Roundabout to rename for their corporate sty. Fortunately, on this show the production team flew united: Tony Walton’s set, first-rate work after a string of recent embarrassments, wittily extends the auditorium’s curves and motifs into the onstage living room so we’re all in the Stanley home; William Ivey Long dresses the cast with subtlety and period flair. Director Jerry Zaks shapes the action naturalistically, at an easy pace, which is sometimes disconcerting: He doesn’t “build” to the act curtains with the traditional manic frenzy. And some of his cast, notably Harriet Harris as Maggie, seem uncertain as to how real emotions should be in this wacky enclosed world.
Most of the company, though, knows precisely how to let inner feeling anchor them without stifling the play’s airiness. Terry Beaver and Linda Stephens make Mr. and Mrs. Stanley both touching and dreadful; Byron Jennings mixes sobriety with dash as the Noël Coward-like Beverly Carlton; asked to contribute only one note each to the mix, skilled hands like William Duell, Ruby Holbrook, Stephen De Rosa, and Julie Boyd know how to make it sound three or four different ways. Jean Smart, playing an actress wholly antithetical to her persona, has contrived to stretch and tuck the role till it seems based on her. Airiest of all is Lewis J. Stadlen, playing Banjo, who stars in movies with his brothers Wacko and Sloppo. There’s something of Harpo in Stadlen’s free-floating giddiness, plus a lot of Groucho and a hearty helping of Jimmy Durante, who played Banjo in the film version. More than anything, there’s a sense of liberation: Stadlen plays as if all his previous roles had been a prison and this one were the governor’s amnesty. There’s pleasure in just watching a man be this happy onstage.
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.
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.