Playwright: George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. At: Circle Theatre, 1010 W. Madison, Oak Park. Tickets: 708-660-9540; www.circle-theatre.org; $20-$24. Runs through: April 3
A truly brilliant version of The Man Who Came to Dinner may be impossible these days: it requires a large stage, a lavish set and a Shakespeare-sized cast. As written, there are more than 30 speaking roles (plus a choir) demanding at least two-dozen actors. The easy part is finding capable lead performers to play Sheridan Whiteside, his loyal secretary Maggie Cutler, the romantic lead Bert Jefferson and so on. The devil is in the details. It will seem as if I am damning with faint praise by declaring the Circle Theatre effort a workmanlike production.
The 1939 play is set in Mesalia, Ohio, where self-centered critic, raconteur and radio personality Sheridan Whiteside has injured his hip during a lecture tour. Whiteside recuperates in the home of wealthy Mr. and Mrs. Stanley, thoroughly interfering with their personal lives and burying everyone in an avalanche of telegrams, phone calls, unusual presents and celebrity visitors. When Whiteside's capable assistant, Maggie, falls in love with a local journalist, Whiteside tries to ruin the romance.
The production boasts strong leads in Circle Theatre veterans Jon Steinhagen and Kieran Welsh-Phillips. Steinhagen wisely underplays the sometimes-blowhard Whiteside with a dry delivery, while Welsh-Phillips projects both Maggie's hard-boiled smarts and her vulnerability. They are surrounded by myriad characters, some making merely momentary appearances, and this is where Circle Theatre saves bodies, having 16 actors play 26 roles. Some players are solidly sincere (as they need to be) while others are appropriately oversized (as they need to be), but the body count is not quite enough to fully suggest the growing frenzy within the Stanley manse.
Costume Designer Elizabeth Powell Wislar, another Circle Theatre vet, pours her resources into the women's costumes, which have an appropriate 1939 period flavor and nice range of colors. The outfits for Broadway star Lorraine Sheldon (well-played by Heather Townsend) are drop-dead dazzlers. But the men's costumes are dreary and ill-fitted (jacket sleeves too long), and old suits from the 1960s cannot pass for 1939.
Likewise, there's something qualitative missing in Bob Knuth's scenic design, which completes the Stanley living room with dark wood trim, Knuth's signature boldly-patterned wallpaper and a grand piano. But there's some depth of elegance and luxury that's lacking. Could it be the somewhat-Victorian selection of furniture? Or the odd absence of lamps?
The Man Who Came to Dinner is far more difficult to present than it seems. Even when brilliantly performed, do contemporary audiences understand its period references to William Beebe, Dr. Dafoe (the Dionne Quints) or Felix Frankfurter? How about a who's who lobby display? Am I carping too much? Perhaps I should go with the flow of this workmanlike but enjoyable production of a great screwball comedy.