CNY Playhouse presents an infectiously grumpy, holiday classic

The cast of 'The Man Who Came to Dinner.'Photo: Amelia Beamish The Man Who Came to Dinner Who The Central New York Playhouse Where 3649 Erie Blvd. E, Shoppingtown Mall, Syracuse When Through Dec. 24 Tickets $20; Thursday & Sunday, $15 Review by Eesha Patkar

I imagine when The Man Who Came to Dinner debuted in 1939, the play’s humor was topical enough to be favorably received by its audience. In 2012, however, this period piece is getting fewer laughs.

A lack of laughs, though, hasn’t stopped director Dan Rowlands from bringing it back on to Central New York Playhouse’s stage and turning it into a fairly rousing success at that.

The Man Who Came to Dinner is a long play. Spanning over three hours with two intermissions, it’s a comedy about an obnoxious radio host as he controls and terrorizes a household, all while trapped in a wheelchair. Sherdian “Sherri” Whiteside (James Uva) arrives at the estate of the Stanleys of Mesalia, Ohio only to slip on a patch of ice and injure his hip just before Christmas. This infamous accident is never witnessed, but as the play progresses one wishes they had the dear pleasure of doing so. It is, in fact, a testament to Uva’s commendable talent in playing Whiteside’s overbearing character to near perfection.

As Whiteside is a world-renowned radio personality, nervous Mrs. Stanley (Cathy Greer-English) is thrilled about his presence in their home. It doesn’t take him long to quell her squirrelly fluttering however, and send her running scared into some distant corner of her own mansion. A daft nurse Preen (Colleen Deitrich), unfortunate to be assigned to Whiteside, gets the worst dose of his lascivious verbal spew.

No one emerges unscathed from this imperious tyranny, except for his battle scarred and enduring secretary Maggie Cutler (Joleene DesRosiers Moody). Cutler’s acerbic wit matches his own. She even goes far as to fall in love with the local newspaper editor Bert Jefferson (Scott Pflanz) and decides to leave Whiteside’s service. This is nothing but a terrible and unfair insult to the magnanimous Sheridan Whiteside. He must, of course, do everything in his power to sabotage it. And who best to carry out his Machiavellian plan than the “Boudoir Butterfly?” And thus, Lorraine Sheldon – absolute archetype of a high society struggling theater actress – arrives in small town Mesalia to snag Jefferson and more preferably, his play.

Maggie (Joleene DesRosiers Moody) has an angrier than usual bout with Whiteside (Jim Uva). Photo: Amelia Beamish

Sheldon is a questionable actress, but Gilman is not. Her over-the-top but entertaining portrayal is most definitely the show stealer. From Acts I and II, Uva’s Whiteside holds the play together with his rapid fire bombardment of 1930esque dialogue and period references. As complementary characters, Pflanz is a smooth talking but deferential Jefferson, and Moody is benign and earnest as Cutler. But Gilman’s memorable performance as a floozy, self-absorbed social climber livens the stage. Recurring characters of Dr. Bradley (Steve Rowlands), Mr. Ernest Stanley (Tom Minion) John the Butler (Daniel Lawless) and Sarah the cook (Ika Kaplan) come in and go out only to be quickly forgotten. Harriet Stanley (Kathy Egloff) chimes in well intermittently as the comic relieving, mad sister of Mr. Stanley.

In Act III, the play starts to fall apart. In comes Banjo, an egregious and debauched character that the play’s creators George S. Kaufmann and Moss Hart intended to be an homage to Harpo Marx, an American comedian who performed loud, physical humor often relying on clown and pantomime techniques. In the original production, Broadway actor David Burns played the character. In Rowlands production, he cast Miquon Jackson to play the outrageous, bawdy and ridiculous Banjo.

Rowlands has set this lengthy, sprawling play at a fast pace that is engaging and easy to grasp. In contrast, the set and props in the play are less impressive. They are quaint but hardly fashioned as the grandiose décor of a rich mansion as they should be, and leave a lot to be desired.

But with Christmas just around the corner, getting into the infectious spirit of The Man Who Came to Dinner is inevitable. Enjoy it while it lasts.