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Dining Out 

A queered-up Dinner is funny, but loses its subtlety

Wednesday, Dec 29 2004
Stage critics are notorious louts. We say rude things; we don't dress up for opening night. Most of us make embarrassing dinner guests. But Alexander Woollcott -- the fat snob who covered theater for the New York World in the 1920s and infested the Algonquin Round Table -- may have been the cruelest of his breed, and this comedy à clef gave him a smart kick in the head in 1939, courtesy of his friends Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. Woollcott lived to see The Man Who Came to Dinner become a popular film with Bette Davis, in 1941, then had the good sense to die two years later.

In the play, fat snob Sheridan Whiteside falls on ice outside a home in a small Ohio town, breaks his hip (or something), and stays, not just for dinner, but for a whole week, barking at the help and making long-distance business calls to Hollywood and New York. The terrorized Stanley household puts up with visits from Sheridan's famous friends, like Beverly Carlton and "Banjo" (surrogates for Noel Coward and Harpo Marx); odd gifts of live animals; and preparations to broadcast Sheridan's Christmas radio message from their living room. He relies on his unflappable assistant, Maggie Cutler. ("Maggie, I will not be wheeled out of here like a baby that needs its diapers changed!") But when Maggie falls for a local newspaperman and threatens to leave, Sheridan schemes to distract the reporter-cum-playwright with a glamorous actress, Lorraine Sheldon, who wants to star in his unproduced play.

Dinner belongs to a genteel tradition of "screwball comedy" (long before, say, Caddyshack), in which well-heeled, witty people lose their composure and get into scrapes. Most of the satire has dated -- especially jokes about Woollcott -- so director John Fisher reframes the script as early queer theater and ratchets up the screwball element. A flaming butler prances across the living room. The reporter, Bert Jefferson, may or may not be bi. And Sheridan himself rages from his wheelchair like a discommoded old queen, not just selfish of Maggie's attention but also jealous of her engagement to Bert.

Fisher strains to justify this revision in his director's notes: "While I do not believe that Kaufman [and] Hart ... intended to create a gay character, I believe they deliberately left the sexuality of this man open to interpretation. We interpret him as queer." Whatever. P.A. Cooley's performance as Sheridan erases any need for justification. He's a scathing, ferocious bitch. Sheridan abuses his dowdy nurse, Miss Preen, with fierce insults -- "You are a sex-starved cobra!" -- which Cooley seems to enjoy firing across the stage. A queered-up Sheridan seems natural enough, and funny, even if the real Woollcott was too fat to have much of a sex life. (He once famously said, "All the things I really like to do are either illegal, immoral, or fattening.")

The problem with setting Cooley loose on Sheridan is that his performance destroys any subtlety between the snob and his assistant, Maggie. There should be affection between them, veiled by savage wit, but Maryssa Wanlass has no chance to develop Maggie's character in the glare of Sheridan's queeniness. Wanlass is pert, short-haired, and sharp-looking in her flannel skirt-suit, but those are just the outlines of the role; her acting is hesitant. Same with Matt Weimer as Bert -- he's mild-mannered and sensitive without showing any inner conviction. Fisher tolerates (or encourages?) so much limp acting in the otherwise talented cast that the play would be intolerable for 2 1/2 hours without Cooley's concentrated momentum. Only Matthew Martin, as both Beverly Carlton and Banjo, gives strong resistance to Cooley; in fact, in the Beverly Carlton scene, with a light-footed song and dance, Martin upstages Cooley.

Fisher's apparent mission at Theatre Rhino is to revisit pre-Stonewall writers who kept their gay tendencies (if any) under a respectable three-piece suit. He likes to blow up subtexts until the old plays resemble queer farce. The results can be hilarious, and I'm all for churning through the repertoire in a style you might call anti-Carey Perloff -- irreverent, anti-literal. But a director should do it for aesthetic, not political, reasons. You do it because it's funny or illuminating, not to spread the gospel that there are really a lot more queers out there than you think (which is redundant in San Francisco). And you make sure your actors can act.


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