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House Guest From Hell

Photo by Lee Garay Toney

Phone Charges: George Ward and Rebecca Dines

TheatreWorks hosts 'The Man Who Came to Dinner'

By Heather Zimmerman

Most everyone appreciates the truth behind that adage about old dogs and new tricks, and TheatreWorks' production of The Man Who Came to Dinner wisely follows the venerable rule. The classic satire by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart has graced the stage many a Christmas since 1939, and at the hands of TheatreWorks, the wonderfully venomous wit of this long-time favorite endures, more or less. A sharp tongue, it seems, can never go out of style.

The dialogue sometimes betrays its age--"I'll spit in your eye" certainly no longer seems a menacing threat--yet the acid humor of radio critic Sheridan Whiteside retains every bit of its original vigor in a hilarious portrayal by George Ward. Julie Eccles is a fine complement to Ward's Whiteside, playing it straight as Maggie Cutler, the critic's long-suffering assistant. Impeccable timing between these two helps to keep much of the vintage comedy intact in Whiteside's take-over of the quintessential Middle American Stanley household when he breaks his hip in a fall on the Stanleys' icy doorstep.

Unfortunately, the production is far from flawless. Overacting is the chief villain here. Satire thrives on exaggeration, but some scenes dissolve into episodes of near-shrieking in an apparent attempt to heighten the comedy. Rebecca Dines plays both sides of this treacherous line; her Lorraine Sheldon, a conceited, social-climbing actress, oozes self-congratulation to comic perfection in some scenes and simply overplays it in others. Each member of the put-upon Stanley family seems to occasionally fall into a similar trap with performances that waver between the convincing and the self-conscious.

The production is lovingly traditional--no attempts at updates here, and none are really needed. Although the original subjects of the play's celebrity parodies have since passed from the limelight, TheatreWorks has highlighted a few of the show's humorous reminders that a fascination with famous persons (and especially, it seems, those crazed with self-importance) is an American tradition that will never fade. If only today's notables had the character of Kaufman and Hart's creations. Of course, God forbid Rush Limbaugh should ever slip on anyone's icy doorstep.

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From the Dec. 7-14, 1995 issue of Metro

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