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The Man Who Came to Dinner
 The Man Who Came To Dinner
  Eureka College Theatre Department

  October 9-14
  By Douglas Okey

As the early decades of the twentieth century gradually pass out of living memory, with the current generation of young people ever more obsessed with their own time and cut off from the entertainment touchstones of the past, a property like The Man Who Came to Dinner may soon petrify into an inscrutable cultural relic.

The classic three-act comedy from George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, directed by Holly Rocke at Eureka College, is liberally daubed with contemporary references to the popular culture of the 1930s. Mentions of people from the worlds of entertainment, crime, and politics—or do I repeat myself?—feature prominently in the rapid-fire dialogue of the characters. A few of Kaufman and Hart’s characters were even inspired by real-life figures. It was clear from the reactions of Thursday night’s patrons that these references whacked the back wall of the house and thudded, without a bounce, to the floor. The college students in the audience blinked once and went back to texting.

Still, when the comedy became physical, the playgoers reacted. Some things CAN be counted on after all. In any case, Kaufman and Hart’s comedy is on full display across the spectrum. The play centers on the character of Sheridan Whiteside, a member of the New York and international literati, a writer and critic, radio host and rubber of elbows with the cultural elite. (A mention of “the vicious circle” in one scene suggests that Whiteside was modeled on Alexander Woollcott, member of the famous Algonquin Round Table.)

As the curtain rises, we learn that “Sherry” has been confined to a wheelchair in the Mesalia, Ohio home of the Stanleys, after slipping and injuring his hip on a patch of ice on the front porch. He was there for a dinner as part of a publicity tour, attended by his assistant Maggie. Now, a few weeks before Christmas, he discovers he is unable to leave the hellish small town and rejoin his life in the fast lane. Tensions rise through the first two acts as the residents of Mesalia in general and the Stanley home in particular, at first in awe of the celebrity in their midst, gradually come to loathe the pompous, conniving, and insufferably rude prima donna. Even Maggie, the most faithful of Girls Friday, comes to resent Whiteside as his schemes turn against her and her chance to find love.

One can only imagine the delight Rocke must have felt at seeing Chris Tam turn up to audition for Whiteside. Tam is, vocally and physically, dream casting for the part, with his enraged howl of a voice and foppish mannerisms. And Tam finds his moments with the role, taking a hefty measure of relish in withering underlings with glower and invective. His performance ably anchors the production. Kelli Robison and Jerrod Barth as Nurse Preen and Dr. Bradley, prime targets of Whiteside’s wrath, whimper along nicely under his assault. Veronica Kudulis displays most of the steel Maggie would need in order to tussle so regularly with Whiteside, and Josh Moore is amiable and convincing as Bert, local press guy and love interest to Maggie.

The supporting cast overall does satisfactory work: Taryn Hefley and Bradley Gabeheart as the Stanleys, into whose home Whiteside has so inexplicably fallen; Anna Dabrowski and Jake Geiger both doing yeoman’s work in multiple roles; Ashleigh Feger and Coleman Payne as Stanley offspring June and Richard, who get sucked into Whiteside’s machinations; Belle Grober as mysterious and ethereal Harriet Stanley, dramatic and slightly maniacal; along with Timothy Nemec and Rahmell Brown providing necessary support.

But the representatives of Whiteside’s world provide the most spark and color. Louis Servant as comic actor Banjo is weird and off-kilter. Tim Jenkins shows us an enlightening alternative to the Noel Cowardesque Beverly Carlton, writer, actor, and all-around dandy. And most of all, Alyssa Martin as the colorful gold-digging diva Lorraine Sheldon. Her manic histrionics are worth the price of admission.

There are weaknesses in the production. As primo as Tam is when he’s on, one could wish for more consistency. Some technical aspects are distracting, as when the snow comes in through a closed window, and a garland nearly obstructs actors’ exits through a swinging door. Most troublesome is a repeated failure by cast members to pick up line cues, preventing the show from reaching a workable tempo. Kaufman and Hart’s dialogue should sing, but this production mostly manages a halting rap. When the performance hits its stride, as it mostly does in the third act, it is enjoyable and funny. Even the texters finally paid attention.

The Man Who Came to Dinner continues Saturday, October 13 at 7:30 pm and Sunday, October 14 at 2 pm. Tickets are $5 and are available by calling 309-467-6363. All tickets will be available for pick up at the Box Office.

Posted October 13, 2012