The Man Who Came to Dinner Revisits Broadway's Golden Age; The Soapy and Dull Avow; The Sad, Fascinating Man in The Flying Lawn Chair

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The Man Who Came to Dinner
By Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman

Because it requires a cast of 29 (huge for a nonmusical nowadays), it reportedly qualifies as risky for the Roundabout Theater's artistic director, Todd Haimes, but its wisecracking essence is safely proto-sitcom. Its other source of appeal today is equally obvious: it plays right into our insane ethos of celebrity worship?so well, in fact, that audiences don't seem to care that they have no idea who either its main target is (the drama critic, actor and radio personality Alexander Woollcott) or most of its dozens of dropped names are (William Beebe, ZaSu Pitts and Margaret Bourke-White, for instance).

It's hard to think of a classic play better suited to corporate sponsorship, actually?corporate advertising and the media glut it causes being the chief perpetuators of our celebrity insanity. And sure enough, this production directed by Jerry Zaks is the inaugural event in the newly renovated Selwyn Theater, whose current name I will be only too glad to mention after receiving a payment equal to the one the Roundabout Theater received to put the name on the building ($8.5 million).

Looking at the old Selwyn's $25 million worth of restored baroque-revival opulence and the droll way in which Tony Walton's set for the play precisely reflected it in an upper-middle-class living room from 1930s Ohio, I wondered briefly what Woollcott and the other acid-tongued wags of the Algonquin Round Table might have said about the newly respectable logrolling of our new century. Then I remembered that George S. Kaufman worked for years as drama editor for The New York Times while writing plays for Broadway, and that Woollcott, once the Times drama critic, said near the beginning of the last century that the main attraction of that job was the chance to hobnob with the theater glitterati. In the words of Sheridan "Sherry" Whiteside (the play's Woollcott character): "I may vomit."

The well-known premise of The Man Who Came to Dinner is that Whiteside?an urbane critic, radio host and incorrigible curmudgeon who has grown rich doing $1500-an-appearance lecture tours?slips on an icy step at the home of a small-town socialite and must spend six weeks recovering there against his will. He is rude beyond measure to everyone around him yet expects abject obedience, and he leaves his loyal secretary, Maggie Cutler, to put a human face on his affairs when absolutely necessary. The thin excuse of a plot involves Sherry's scheme to foil Maggie's love affair with a local newspaperman (Sherry's afraid to lose her) by summoning a bombshell actress to seduce the beau. The crux of the comedy, though, is in the string of sketch-like gags and absurd actions of Sherry and his eccentric celebrity friends (sending penguins, an octopus and a mummy case as gifts, for instance), which the mortals can't begin to comprehend.

Contrary to what you may have heard, Nathan Lane is excellent as Whiteside. Some reviewers, it seems, have grown so attached to the sharply nasty portrayal of the role by Monty Woolley in the popular 1941 film that they can't imagine that Lane's roly-poly, jokey aggression might offer something new and worthwhile. It does. He's the perfect Sherry for the slugfest-era of Rush Limbaugh, Dr. Laura and Maury Povich, convinced deep down that nothing he says, no matter how urbanely arch, really matters beyond its ability to shock, tickle or titillate. Loosely coiled behind black glasses with a neatly trimmed, dark beard, Lane spits out all his barbs like punchlines, with his trademark nasal wallop ("You flea-bitten Cleopatra," "Little Miss Bed Pan").

Nervous comedy is obviously this actor's mode of apprehending the world, but the seeds of his interpretation are also in the play. Maggie's crack about "Little Lord Fauntleroy," for instance, fits him a helluva lot better than it does Woolley. If Lane's performance sometimes seems a bit effortless, well, there's a bit of effortlessness behind the whole project?starting with the decision by an ostensibly nonprofit theater to traffic in such an utterly fail-safe commodity.

The production is impressively handsome, light on its feet, acerbically silly and fun and (with the exception of one badly miscast actress) I honestly don't know what more can be asked of it. Lewis J. Stadlen is a manic jewel as Banjo, the character based on Harpo Marx. Byron Jennings is the picture of egomaniacal suavity as Beverly Carlton, the narcissistic playwright modeled after Noel Coward. Harriet Harris finds just the right mixture of patient intelligence and sexual panic for Maggie. And William Duell and Mary Catherine Wright strike deadpan gold in the cluelessness of the much-abused doctor and nurse. The cast's only weak link is Jean Smart as Lorraine Sheldon, the mantrap actress (probably based on Gertrude Lawrence), who has zero chemistry with either Lane or Harris and who strains so hard to seem phoney she ends up seeming sincerely inept. Too much else is comically right for this to dampen the atmosphere much, though. If you're looking for vintage American escapism in the middle of a muggy summer, look no further than The Man Who Came to Dinner.

American Airlines Theater, 227 W. 42nd St. (betw. 8th Ave. & B'way), 719-1300, through Oct. 15.

By Bill C. Davis

The myopia of the Catholic Church ought to be a great subject for drama. Unfortunately, it's almost exclusively taken up by those more interested in pushing well-worried buttons?about women's rights, gay rights, celibacy, abortion, divorce?than in painting realistically complex pictures or engaging in counterargument worthy of the name. For every truly worldly and articulate fictional cleric (like, say, the Cardinals in Brecht's Galileo and Hochhuth's The Deputy) the history of playwriting has 100 head-in-the-sand villains, hypocrites and mealymouthed equivocators. The result is a string of embarrassments for the theater like Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi or Michael J. Chepiga's Getting and Spending, and the impression that the "right-thinking people" have some reason to howl about theatrical church-bashing.

Avow, by Bill C. Davis (the author of Mass Appeal), is a case in point. A clunkily written tale about a pious gay couple who want a priest to witness their marriage vows, while the sister of one of them, pregnant by a married man, nearly has an affair with the priest, it paints a picture of God so simpleminded and one-dimensional that anyone who believes in him/her/it is, a priori, an idiot. This reductionist "checklist play" is conceived far more crassly as a consumer product than The Man Who Came to Dinner, carefully touching on every issue the religious shoppers might want to see on the shelf (AIDS, gay adoption, married priests) but utterly neglecting the chemistry of relationships and the plausibility of plot.

No gay couple intelligent, radical and self-respecting enough to challenge a priest in this way would ever wallow in the soap-opera dilemmas and dull epigrammatic discourse Davis gives these guys: "Giving people what they want is not proof of love"; "You're more fond of feeling pressure than feeling me." The production, directed by Jack Hofsiss, for all its good actors (including a charming appearance by the old MGM star Jane Powell), hasn't a prayer of rising above the lumbering material. One annoyed gaffer behind me, ambling out of the theater with two canes, quipped to his companion, "That could've been written by Walt Disney."

Century Center, 111 E. 15th St. (betw. Union Sq. E. & Irving Pl.), 239-6200.

The Man in The Flying Lawn Chair
By the Ensemble of the 78th Street Theater Lab

On a happier note, the 78th Street Theater Lab's 100-minute, ensemble-created piece about the life and death of Larry Walters is worth seeing. The piece sags a little in spots, but it's touching in the end, and manages to bring alive some of the inspiring mania and strangely uplifting sadness of this fascinating real-life character.

Walters, as you may recall, was a truck driver who briefly became a celebrity in 1982 after strapping himself and 40-odd 6-foot weather balloons to an ordinary lawn chair and rising to an altitude of 16,000 feet, where airline pilots reported him to bewildered air-traffic controllers. The stunt was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, and a decade after realizing it, when the excitement of his guest spot on David Letterman and his travels as an inspirational lecturer were far behind him, he went hiking in the California woods and shot himself in the heart.

Directed by Eric Nightengale, The Man in the Flying Lawn Chair is set in Walter's workshop?a versatile junk-shed-like room with lots of bric-a-brac around and sliding metal panels at the back, designed by Si Joong Yoon?which wisely emphasizes his background as a humble tinker. Toby Wherry plays him well as the pudgy, gimlet-eyed manic-depressive he no doubt was, and he gets good support from Kimberly Reiss as his girlfriend Carol, Troy W. Taber as several of his friends and Monica Read as the meddling kid next door, a flight attendant who flirts with him after he's famous, and more.

The piece's one serious problem is that Carol's blind mother, played by Carey Cromelin, is tritely written as a running annoyance, which strains the audience's patience before long. The story of this great childish dream, though, courageously and recklessly carried into adulthood by a man who lacked all ability to talk about it (or anything else) beyond the language of pop lyrics and B-movie dialogue, is as compelling today as it was nearly two decades ago.

236 W. 78th St. (betw. B'way & Amsterdam Ave.), 873-9050, through Aug. 12.

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