We hear the man who came to dinner before we see him in The Man Who Came to Dinner, the 1930s comedy by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.
"Great dribbling cow!" he yells to his nurse, hurling his first insult while still waiting in the wings. Moments later, the malignant Sheridan Whiteside rolls into view, where he will verbally victimize friend and foe alike from his wheelchair.
Whiteside, a famous New York theater critic and radio host who will cut you with his superior intellect, is convalescing at the well-appointed Ohio home of Mr. and Mrs. Stanley. He fell on their front porch just before Christmas, cutting short a lecture tour of the Midwest.
But here's the thing about this erudite hell on wheels: He has friends coming out his ears and far more fans than foes. Could it be that Whiteside, a venom-spewing spigot that's stuck on blast, is actually not half so horrid as he appears?
You'll notice that Whiteside is never unkind to the teenagers of the house or to the help. We get another clue about what lurks deep within from the smart, sassy woman who knows him best: Maggie Cutler, his longtime secretary, who deflects his barrage of blistering putdowns with a sly smile. She likes him. She really likes him.
And if you are anything like me you'll love Arizona Repertory Theatre's staging of The Man Who Came to Dinner. The once-topical comedy, which runs through Dec. 8 at the Marroney Theatre, is an impeccable showcase of student talent.
Everyone in the huge cast, except for the actor playing the title role, is a University of Arizona theater student. The actors shine under the guidance of guest director Hank Stratton, who knows the play's every nook and cranny; he starred alongside Nathan Lane in a Broadway revival in 2000.
Kaufman and Hart wrote eight plays together (all of them hits) during their partnership, which lasted just 10 years, from 1930 to 1940. The Man Who Came to Dinner, which came along in 1939, is now as much a staple of American theater as its less-funny sibling You Can't Take It With You.
Because it's so accessible and deceptively simple to produce—if you have enough bodies—The Man Who Came to Dinner has been done to death by dinner theaters and high school drama departments. Kaufman and Hart packed it with eccentric characters who all too often have brought out the absolute worst in bad actors across several generations.
It's also overstuffed with one-liners, and if you've ever endured a bad Neil Simon play (and who hasn't?), you know how deadly those can be.
But I'm happy to report that ART blows the dust off this nearly 75-year-old sucker. Some of the jokes have aged better than others, which makes the UA's achievement all the more remarkable. Stratton's cast achieves a pitch-perfect comic tone and a sustained level of almost heroic high energy.
Whiteside is a character inspired by Kaufman and Hart's real-life friend Alexander Woollcott—a pompous critic with a ferocious wit and legions of friends. The play includes several other characters inspired by celebrities of the day, from Gertrude Lawrence to Noel Coward to Harpo Marx, played in this production with unerring style by Silvia Vannoy, Micah Bond and Owen Virgin, respectively.
But first among equals is Jordan Letson, a UA senior whose performance as Maggie is a thing of beauty. Letson brings magnificent style to the role, elevating everyone around her in the process.
Unfortunately, the performance by professional actor Roberto Guajardo in the title role does not as yet match Letson's brilliant timing and almost eerie effortlessness. His performance is hilarious and stinging, to be sure. But on the second night of the run he often struggled to get the words out. Not a big deal, except that he's playing a man with dazzling verbal acuity. Here's betting the veteran actor will stutter less as the run continues.
The Man Who Came to Dinner also benefits greatly from the gorgeous costume, set and sound designs (by Patrick Holt, Peter Beudert and Mylan P. Myers).
Bravo to Arizona Repertory Theatre for making this old play such a pleasure again.