You’re invited to Dinner

For 40 years, the Shaw Festival, in historic Niagara-on-the-Lake, has been providing professional-quality theatre to the Niagara Peninsula. If recent years are any indication, things are only getting better. This year’s selection includes Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s The Man Who Came to Dinner, playing at the Festival Theatre until Nov. 10.
The Man Who Came to Dinner premiered in New York City in 1939, and has been revamped in many subsequent stage and media forms in the six decades since. It was one of many wildly successful collaborations for Moss and Hart, amongst such classics as You Can’t Take It With You. The show is both a lampoon and loving tribute to various aspects of the play’s time period, from celebrity to small-town America.
The play is primarily about the trials and tribulations of Sheridan Whiteside, an egotistical author/lecturer who is waylaid in a family home in a small Ohio town after falling and breaking his hip on the home’s icy front stairs. After that, however, the plot isn’t so much a plot as it is a string of madcap misunderstandings and comic scheming … oh, and penguins. Yes, penguins. Don’t ask how, but eventually a small group of escaped penguins become a mainstay of absurd physical comedy for the last half of the play. The humour of the play runs the entire spectrum, from broad physical, almost slapstick, to very fast and intelligent one-liners, and unexpectedly, a very advanced sexual playfulness for the time it was written. This is a play where there is no heavy moralizing, no lesson to be learned, just problems (Whiteside’s favourite assistant has fallen in love and plans to quit, the owners of the home quickly growing fed up with their pompous houseguest’s lengthy stay), resolutions (involving a years-old murder and a mummy case), and hilarious punch-lines.
A play like this lives or dies by its characters, and the actors portraying them. Fortunately in this case, there are no major problems on either front (a minor character or two may not have rung completely true, but all in all, no complaints). Carrying the bulk of the dialogue and responsibility is Michael Ball, who plays the aforementioned Whiteside, and who does a marvelous job creating a man who is intelligent and verbose, yet utterly self-involved, and still managing to make him a thoroughly likable character. In lesser hands, Sheridan Whiteside would have been an insufferable ass, but here he is not unlike the wise and barbarously witty grandfather we all wish we had.
Other character stand-outs include Patrick R. Brown as Beverly Carlton, a very thinly disguised caricature of Noel Coward (foppish Brit-icism included), and Laurie Paton as Maggie Cutler, Whiteside’s strong-willed and sassy assistant.
Even from a technical standpoint, the play shines. Set and production design by David Boechler are wonderful, as is the spirited period music, mostly big band. There are also some wonderful self-reflexive moments, such as Carlton’s fantastical musical number, complete with floating lamps and a self-playing piano.
All in all, Director Neil Munro and his cast have done a wonderful job bringing this Broadway classic to the Shaw stage. So, anyone in search of a light-hearted evening of pure entertainment should call the Shaw box office, and book tickets soon. This is a show not to be missed.

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