The laughter that rolled like a wave across Palo Alto last Saturday night was from "The Man Who Came to Dinner," a 1939 comedy by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart that opened at the Lucie Stern Theatre.
It is a very funny play, despite being overly long, and in this production by the Palo Alto Players, unevenly cast. It's like a two-hour, 15-minute sitcom, from a time before there were sitcoms.
This production's saving grace (irony intended, to those familiar with the play), is James Shelby, who plays the man of the title. Shelby is excellent in the role, with a beautiful, deep voice blasting the nasty comments of critic and radio host Sheridan Whiteside from one end of the auditorium to the other. The man knows how to project.
The plot is part semi-true story, and part hokum, but serves the cause of comedy. Whiteside, a very famous man, comes to have dinner with a wealthy businessman, Ernest Stanley, and his family in Ohio but slips on some ice and is ordered to stay in the businessman's home for weeks.
On the phone, he tells someone, "They are treating me well. I have the finest horse doctor in town."
He is horribly rude to almost everyone, calling some friends of the Stanleys' harpies and being regularly vicious to his long-suffering assistant, Maggie Cutler, and his nurse, Miss Preen.
He also runs up a huge phone bill, with calls to New York, London, Egypt and elsewhere; demands exclusive use of the Stanleys' living room; and brings in outrageous guests, including convicts in handcuffs and someone who presents him with 40,000 cockroaches.
The play was inspired by, and written for Alexander Woollcott, a famous theater critic who was credited with helping to launch the careers of the Marx Brothers, and who was truly, enthusiastically obnoxious -- but funny. Woollcott would greet friends by saying, "Hello, Repulsive," and if a waiter asked him to repeat his order, would say "muffins filled with pus."
The idea for the play arose after Woollcott stayed at Hart's house, demanding use of Hart's master bedroom and pretty much terrorizing everybody. Then complaining about it.
This production is the annual show that the Players do in conjunction with lots of theater teachers, students and former students from Gunn (mostly) and Palo Alto high schools, and Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School. It's a lovely idea and reinforces the Players' commitment to making local theater.
Shelby, for instance, teaches and directs theater at Gunn.
Kristen Lo, another Gunn teacher, was excellent as the long-suffering Maggie, trading badinage with Sheridan like old-West gunfighters. Athena Rink, a Paly grad, is good as the sneaky and snarky actress Lorraine Sheldon (sporting glamorous clothes designed by Mary Cravens).
Chris Mahle, who teaches drama at JLS, is properly over-the-top and hilarious as Banjo, one of Sheridan's goofiest friends. Banjo is based on Woollcott's friend Harpo Marx, and Mahle does an excellent job of it, with physical comedy that will be familiar to anyone who has seen the Marx Brothers movies. Mahle also plays two other roles.
The hokum part of the plot has to do with Maggie falling in love with a local journalist and wanting to quit working for Sheridan, and Sheridan's selfish efforts to sabotage the relationship. It's OK, in a sitcom kind of way.
Paul Dunlap, an English teacher at Gunn, played the journalist, with a poor habit of speaking to the wings with a soft voice. He was blasted off the stage by Shelby, who knows how to make himself heard.
Nikolaj Sorensen's set was pleasant enough, with flowered wallpaper and doors that mostly closed as needed. The only sore spot was a staircase that was painted flat black, like most backstage stairs. It jarred with the rest of the set.
Lighting designer Isaiah Leeper seemed to have a bad night for the opening, with uneven lighting on set walls, and missing lighting when it was needed a couple of times.
Director Patrick Klein did a good job of serving the jokes -- timing is everything with comedy, and his cast delivered. Be sure to read his bio blurb in the program.
The show could easily lose 15-to-30 minutes of stuff that doesn't really advance the plot or make for very good jokes. The cockroach-filled cage, for instance, didn't work that well. Nor did the crate full of penguins.
Still, it's an enjoyable show, overall, and the opening night audience -- well populated by folks associated with Gunn and Paly -- loved it.
Freelance writer John Orr can be emailed at [email protected]
What: "The Man Who Came to Dinner."
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto .
When: Through July 1.
Cost: $25-$52 (discounts available).
Info: PA Players.