‘The Man Who Came to Dinner’ is pure fun

By on September 11, 2019

Ed Fernandez as Sheridan (red robe) with the rest of the “star-studded” cast of “The Man Who Came to Dinner” at EPAC.

 

“It’s been a long time since I’ve had this much fun at the theatre.”

This is the statement I uttered to my companion when exiting the Sheridan Bigler Theatre on Thursday, Sept. 5, at the conclusion of the premiere of EPAC’s “The Man Who Came to Dinner.”

And as I sat down to write the show’s review, this was a statement I wanted to bury, a sort of penultimate accolade tucked into the depths of this text, down near the bottom, to serve as a thrust upon the reader’s sensibilities that what I am writing should be heeded as truth. But despite all the contrivances I can bring into a review to usher along the reader, tease them into curiosity, to eventually proclaim my true experience and reflection of the art that is live performance I kept coming back to that one statement.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had this much fun at the theatre.

The stage is set, luxurious and rich, and there is much fuss about the Stanley home. Mrs. Stanley (Robin Payne) frets about slightly in the study on a December morning in the 1930s as her children Richard (Ethan Reimel) and June (Maya Burdick) make their way downstairs. In an adjoining room, loud beckoning and demands are heard. Two guests, Mrs. Dexter (Lisa Harris) and Mrs. McCutcheon (Barbara Strong Ellis), arrive bearing gifts for the boisterous occupant in the other room, the one and only Mr. Sheridan Whiteside (Edward R. Fernandez).

Whiteside, the famed man of American letters, radio personality, and general celebrity, has been laid up in the Stanley home after slipping on ice on the front steps while visiting for dinner. Today is the day he will appear from seclusion, and as the door to the other room opens, the crowd assembled is let down by the appearance of Dr. Bradley (Gene Ellis) who has been caring for Whiteside, along with nurse Miss Preen (Joanna Underhill).

It is not long, though, until the gathered are introduced to the rough and insulting nature of Whiteside, who hurls invectives like daggers at anything in his vicinity, including his own secretary, Maggie Cutler (Kristie Ohlinger). Spotting Mr. Stanley (Bob Checchia), who is preparing to leave for work, Whiteside informs the homeowner he will in fact sue for pain and suffering caused by the fall, and until he is healed, will commandeer the majority of the Stanley home, including the telephone line.

When the area clears of all those insulted by Whiteside’s caustic wit, he gets to work with Ms. Cutler catching up on correspondence from famous politicians, celebrities, and old friends, and begins planning a modified tour schedule to get him back to New York for his annual Christmas radio address. He is interrupted by Harriet (Elizabeth Pattey), Mr. Stanley’s aunt, who seems slightly off her rocker and winds up depositing a gift of holly branches on Whiteside’s lap. He swears he recognizes her from somewhere. After she maunders away Whiteside is again interrupted, this time by local newspaperman Bert Jefferson (Zander Gawn).

Kristie Ohlinger as Maggie (left) and Ed Fernandez as Sheridan, during a dress rehearsal of “The Man Who Came to Dinner.”

Whiteside’s stay at the Stanley house is prolonged when he learns Ms. Cutler has fallen in love with Jefferson. Whiteside has been cleared of all injury, but the conniving and lonely man conspires with the doctor to falsify his injuries so to stay on in the Stanley home until after Christmas; he has hatched a plot to keep Ms. Cutler in his employ by calling on longtime “Blossom Girl” Lorraine Sheldon (Lynne DeMers-Hunt) to come to Ohio and steal Jefferson.

There is no way a written review can fully capture the sheer amount of hilarity this three-act play elicits. Whiteside invites members of the Crockfield Home for Paroled Convicts for lunch, entertains Professor Metz (billed as “himself,” but looking a lot like EPAC veteran Alexander P. Bannon) and his hundreds of pet cockroaches, accepts delivery of a waddle of penguins, hosts a boys choir on Christmas Eve, while also welcoming into the Stanley home two of his most beloved friends, composer/playwright/actor Beverly Carlton (Carl Bomberger, who is amazing) and a Hollywood comedian via vaudeville (who strikes a character resemblance to a Marx brother) named Banjo (Jordan Ross Weinhold, who is equally amazing).

Billed as a “star-studded cast,” the players in this production feed off each other on a level I have rarely seen. All of the actors push their characters to unimaginable heights, perhaps highlighted best by the aloof and engaging Harriet, whose character is simply a device for the play’s finale but punctuates each scene she enters and demands attention from those who may have been drifting off in their own thoughts over this heady comedy.

Pattey calls theatregoers back to focus by creating a feeling of true, awestruck inquisitiveness, which is only fed by Fernandez, who delivers lines so naturally it is easy to forget we are watching the artistic director who usually provides the opening welcome for EPAC shows. Snap. Whip. Quickly their shared scenes are over, while the theatre rolls with laughter from viewers as purposefully confused as both Harriet and Whiteside seem to be (until Whiteside figures out who she really is in the end).

However, Pattey and Fernandez do not stand alone. As dueling debs, DeMers-Hunt and Ohlinger are simply outstanding, finishing lines with polished emotion and perfect timing. Their performances are bravo-inducing and ovation-generating. Bomberger and Weinhold, although not on stage simultaneously, deliver such highly orchestrated performances they create cavernous laments in the viewer when Beverly and Banjo exit the stage; their scenes are short, yet magnificently memorable. Even the housekeepers get involved. I found myself rooting for John (Preston Schreffler) and Sarah (Abby Hoy) to find their lovable way through the mess.

I half wonder if director Kenneth Seigh has a magic wand — or perhaps it was intelligent planning over blind chance to have a cast so utterly comfortable with themselves, as a troupe, as the one in “The Man Who Came to Dinner.” Seigh’s direction exhibits a depth of understanding of the script nearing perfection. This production honors the Pulitzer Prize-winning writing team of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.

I want to go see this show again! If time allows — since this show only runs until Sept. 14 — brush up on turn-of-the-century American history, entertainment, and culture before seeing “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” which is deep with popular references causing the pendulum of humor to swing freely.

Honestly, it’s been a long time since I’ve had this much fun at the theatre.

Michael C. Upton is a freelance writer specializing in arts and leisure. He welcomes comments at somepromcu@gmail.com and facebook.com/SomebodiesProductions.

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