Stage: wednesday, August 22, 2002
The Man Who Cameto Dinner
Thurs 7:30pm, Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $14-16. Theatre Arlington, 305 W Main, Arlington. 817-275-7661.
Bountiful Feast

Theatre Arlington’sproduction of ‘The Man Who Came to Dinner’ will please many tastes.


With the array of local options available to them, most Fort Worth theatergoers probably either ignore, or don’t even know of, Theatre Arlington. That’s understandable. It is a bit out of the way. But if The Man Who Came to Dinner is any indication of the troupe’s usual quality of production, a visit would be well worth the drive.

Man — written by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, the team that also penned the Pulitzer-Prize-winning You Can’t Take It with You — is an old favorite that’s received multiple re-stagings since its 1939 debut. Although such classics too often clog the path of fresh, new work, Theatre Arlington’s version is stellar enough to be recommended to both newcomers and frequent theater patrons who have seen earlier versions.

Set in small-town Pennsylvania around 1940, Man serves up a winning brew of droll wit and heartfelt dramedy. It sends I Love Lucy and John Belushi’s thing-that-wouldn’t-leave skit through a Capra film. The action revolves around Sheridan Whiteside (B.J. Cleveland), a bellicose stuffed shirt who spews stinging (though hilarious) invective. With a voice like Orson Welles, Whiteside is a famous, conceited radio host (think Rush Limbaugh or Howard Stern, only funny and interesting). It’s Christmas time and he’s visiting Mr. Stanley (Rick Tuman) and family. A hip fracture, compliments of a patch of ice, lodges Whiteside into the Stanley household. To the family’s dismay, the demanding Whiteside and his assistant Maggie (Patti Diou) quickly commandeer much of the house and disrupt everything by receiving endless visits, phone calls, and presents from well-wishing celebrity friends.

The famous names that are dropped (Gandhi, the Barrymores) date the play somewhat. True, some of today’s theater- goers won’t recognize many of those once well-known monikers, but an update wouldn’t work. Trading Tom Cruise for Cary Grant just wouldn’t cut it, and Man works better as forties Americana than it would set in modern day. And if Theatre Arlington were to contemporize the references, naturally the group would have to contemporize the rest of the play. A full update, replete with cynicism and irony, would lose most of what made the original great to begin with. We love stuff like this precisely because it recalls simpler, more pleasant times. Best to leave such nostalgia as is.

Whiteside, no surprise, reveals a slight heart of gold beneath the bluster. (He eventually redeems himself by singing a freshly penned song, a soft respite of pure beauty amid the buffoonery.) Fortunately for us, this seldom stops him from relishing all the misery he causes to those around him. Such antics include meddling in the Stanley’s child-rearing techniques and haranguing the homeowner’s long-suffering nurse (Jan Gleaves) to the point where she wants to abandon her humane profession for employment in a munitions factory — where she can work toward the destruction of mankind.

Against odds, Man deftly skates through roadblocks that derail many lesser plays. Despite the huge (30-person) cast and myriad subplots, the narrative remains dead-easy to follow; it never careens off-center or collapses under weighty ambitions. So seamlessly woven is the whole that sidetrack threads — a wedding, the appearance of a mysterious stranger, prison inmates, and runaway penguins — never feel the least bit out of context.

Then there’s the length. At three acts, Man should have had more than a few audience members visiting dreamland. Yet the engaging story sped by and felt shorter than most recent two-acts I’ve seen. It helps that the third act is the best and that, although long, the story lacks pointless stretches. Each act feels necessary and adds to, not clutters, the whole.

Wisely cast, Man offers a couple of so-so performances and too many exemplary turns to cite individually. Cleveland owns the show, of course. Nonetheless, Diou’s performance nicely complements it. The romantic storyline around her and her basic goodness helps ground some of the story’s wackier elements. Writer Beverly Carlton (Coy Covington) is a big softy but, like Whiteside, she at first comes off as shallow and narcissistic. Banjo (John Garcia) almost steals the show. With his monkey walk, over-the-top behavior, and clothes (his shirt is so loud it upstages the Christmas tree) he is, one assumes, a composite of the Marx Brothers and Three Stooges.

The Man Who Came to Dinner’s final winning point is that, unlike most of today’s comedies, a certain tenderness tempers its more outlandish aspects. Rest easy, though: Folly is the point here — things never get too serious. To that end, the humor — smart and silly — offers something for all tastes. Even the zippy sexual zingers are more of the “How’s the mattress business?” variety than of the truly objectionable type. Grandma and the kids can come along.

One last plus: The festive Christmas decorations on stage and talk of ice and snow do, even if only momentarily, help you forget the misery of August. All the same, Whiteside’s final words to the audience, “Merry Christmas to all,” delivered from a man who knows full well that audience members are about to climb into 150-degree cars, is just cruel. Betcha he planned it that way.

Theatre Arlington may be out of the way, but it’s currently running one of the season’s better productions. Glancing at the troupe’s upcoming list of shows, it looks as if there’s a lot more of the same top-notch material on the way.

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