A noted ill-tempered radio personality and egotistical tyrant named Sheridan Whiteside slips and falls on a patch of ice on the steps of the Stanley family residence in sleepy Mesalia, Ohio. He is forced to spend several weeks recuperating from a broken hip, wreaking havoc and mischief on the lives of everyone he meets.
That’s the story behind “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” a witty, madcap three-act comedy originally crafted by George Kaufman and Moss Hart. Haddonfield Plays & Players will bring it to the borough beginning Thursday, May 9.
“It is definitely a zany play. There’s a huge cast, about 19 different characters, and it’s one of those shows where people are coming in and out constantly, so ‘madness’ would be a good way to describe it,” said play director Shannon Gingell.
Inspired by a real-life “ungrateful house guest” experience Hart once had with journalist, critic, and radio personality Alexander Woollcott, this show attempts to satirize both Hollywood and Middle America of the pre-war years.
During the course of the play, Whiteside has a host of quirky visitors and gets the entire household wrapped up in a variety of comedic situations involving cockroaches, penguins, impersonations, plenty of secrets, and an Egyptian mummy case. Meanwhile, when Whiteside’s secretary falls in love with a local newspaper reporter, Whiteside is thrown into a panic. Hilarity ensues.
Unlike traditional stage or even high-school productions, HP&P’s space is a bit more intimate, and could threaten to squeeze the life out of such a mobile production, if not for some deft work by director, cast and crew.
“I think we have capitalized on the space really well. We still manage to have the second level which is important for the show, the bedroom level set maximizing the illusion of things. Because it’s an intimate space, people will be able to be heard without mikes and we capitalize on that,” Gingell added.
Pat DeFusco, who plays Whiteside, has a particularly crucial task as the character around whom the entire play revolves. Although immobile, everything about him is large: his wheelchair, his stature, his voice, his insults and repartee, and on an intimate stage, it can be difficult to restrain those impulses and chew the scenery. However, on the night The Sun witnessed rehearsals, he appeared comfortable with the space and volume of what’s required from his performance.
“There are some things in the script that don’t make sense, in general. The bigger thing we’ve looked at, is some of those anachronistic things like when they’re talking about the detective at work, they use the name ‘Philo Vance’ and nobody knows who that is, and we made it ‘Sherlock Holmes.’ You know, staying true to the text, but making it a little bit more understandable for today’s audience that they get the hang of it,” Gingell mentioned.
“This is something that is challenging. I’ve never really played a role like this. I’ve always played the more ‘crazy’ characters, and Maggie’s very subtle and reserved. It’s definitely something to get used to. I am an English teacher, so diving into new shows, you need to know the time period to understand why they’re talking this way and what’s going on. I’ve never been in a show from the 1930s, so getting into that zone has been exciting, something new,” said Sarah Blake, who will play the role of Maggie Cutler, Whiteside’s secretary.
Will the production still “pop” as originally intended?
“Absolutely. One of the best parts of the play is the wit, and keeping that ‘tennis ball in the air’ with the energy and pace. I think the cast does a really good job of embodying their characters and existing within that energy. Even early on in this rehearsal process we haven’t been falling into that trap. People in the cast have a good idea of how to keep up that comedic timing,” Gingell added.
“The Man Who Came to Dinner” will have its preview performance on Thursday, May 9 at 7:30 p.m. and its official opening on Friday, May 10 at 8 p.m. The show closes on May 25. For more information, including dates, show times and to purchase tickets, visit: https://www.haddonfieldplayers.com/.