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'The Man Who Came to Dinner' at Stage West is long but funny

If your fanny goes numb about three hours into the three hours, 15 minutes of The Man Who Came To Dinner, don't blame the performers or director at Stage West Community Playhouse, where the comedy plays weekends through Jan. 25.

The cast and crew do a marvelous job with the 1939 comedy classic, hitting every line smartly and keeping in character even when they must be tempted to break up over the zany doings on stage.

The fault, if indeed it's a fault, lies with playwrights Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, who wrote in a time when patrons expected plays to be three or more hours long. The result is the feeling that some scenes are padded (the three-point set-up that could just as well be done in one quick action, for example) and others unnecessary (establishing character in Act 1 doesn't need to take 90 minutes).

That said, The Man Who Came to Dinner is a star turn for Peter Clapsis as the irascible Sheridan Whiteside, the radio star who moves in with an Ohio family to recuperate after he slips on their doorstep and injures his hip, then proceeds to take over the house and disrupt the lives of the householders.

Clapsis' character is on stage 99 percent of the time, dominating the stage as much as he does his unwilling hosts, the hapless Stanley family, and his own circle of friends.

Clapsis gives Whiteside a devilish little laugh and makes his bombastic personality irresistible, even as he rips helter-skelter through others' lives. This gifted actor makes it easy to believe that Whiteside could elicit loyalty and friendships with the high and mighty despite his demanding and manipulative ways. This Whiteside isn't mean or mean-spirited; he's fun and funny, so endearingly self-centered that you like him in spite of your better instincts.

Though the play often seems to be All Whiteside, All the Time — that's the point — his retainers and admirers hold their own in the action.

Jeanine Martin is terrific as the cool, efficient Maggie Cutler, the secretary who has smoothed out Whiteside's rough edges for a decade. When Whiteside threatens to scuttle Maggie's chance at love, she takes a play from his own book and almost succeeds in out-manipulating him.

Mollie Lutz is a joy as the sweetly sinister Harriet Stanley, the sister of Whiteside's host. David Stenger is a delightfully nutty Professor Metz, whose surprise gift to Whiteside upsets the household. W. Paul Wade is a charmer as small town newspaperman Bert Jefferson, who upsets Whiteside's apple cart in more ways than one. Maurice Batista is a properly daffy Dr. Bradley, whose literary ambitions overwhelm his medical ethics. And Juan Triana is a totally amusing Banjo, Whiteside's prankster buddy.

But it is Cheryl Roberts, who plays Nurse Preen as a cross between Cloris Leachman's Nurse Diesel in Mel Brooks's High Anxiety and Louise Fletcher's Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, who steals her every scene.

With or without her bandaged finger, Roberts' Nurse Preen commands the stage merely by stalking across it. Her wild physical humor, slow steams and guttural threats are equally hilarious.

Younger members of the audience may be puzzled and/or unimpressed by some of Whiteside's incessant name-dropping — ZaSu Pitts? Louella Parsons? Margaret Bourke-White? Players Club cigarettes? — and also not realize that some of the characters are sendups of then-icons Noel Coward and the Marx Brothers. They will pick up on Dali and Disney, but perhaps not realize what a big deal it would be to get a personal phone call from Sam Goldwyn.

Even so, there are plenty of comical scenes, though a little nipping and tucking of the script (with the licenser's permission, of course) would have brought the laughs closer together, to say nothing of the "start" and "stop" times.


Dinner time

The Man Who Came to Dinner, weekends through Jan. 25 at Stage West Community Playhouse, 8390 Forest Oaks Blvd., Spring Hill. Shows are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $18. Call (352) 683-5113 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays or an hour before each show.

'The Man Who Came to Dinner' at Stage West is long but funny 01/09/09 [Last modified: Friday, January 9, 2009 8:47pm]
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