The boor becomes endearing in Cockpit's 'Dinner'

June 22, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

In addition to being a famous writer and radio personality in the 1930s, Alexander Woollcott had a reputation as an insult artist extraordinaire. This last trait is the one that inspired Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman to write their now-classic 1939 comedy, "The Man Who Came to Dinner," which is receiving a charming production at Cockpit in Court's Upstairs Cabaret theater.

Charming? A play about boorish, egotistical Woollcott is charming? Well, yes. In the script, Sheridan Whiteside -- as the Woollcott character is called -- is eventually revealed to have a sentimental side. At Cockpit, under the direction of F. Scott Black, actor J. R. Lyston displays that side almost from the start; his Whiteside is more endearing than unendurable.

Granted, this approach lessens the dramatic contrast that can result from seeing a man-eating grizzly transformed into a cuddly teddy bear. But though it is muted, much of the fun of Kaufman and Hart's period comedy still comes through.

The play's premise is that while visiting a small Ohio town on a lecture tour, Whiteside has fallen on the ice and ended up confined to the home of his hosts, the Stanleys (or as he calls them, "Mr. and Mrs. Poop-Face"). Cooped up against his will, he takes over the household, exiling the Stanleys to their bedroom and receiving gifts ranging from cockroaches to live penguins, and friends ranging from convicts to movie stars.

Even when he's snarling, however, Lyston's Whiteside seems to be concealing a smile -- particularly when he's snarling at his loyal secretary, Maggie (or as he calls her, "repulsive," "you sex-starved hag," "you flea-bitten Cleopatra" -- take your pick.)

Cathy Ireland's Maggie is tough enough to be believable as the only one willing and able to talk back to Whiteside. But Ireland's sophisticated airs make it more difficult to believe she's fallen head over heels for a local newspaper reporter and is ready to give up the high life for small-town domestic bliss.

Such are the ways of Maggie's heart, however, and much of this good old-fashioned three-act comedy consists of Whiteside's selfish efforts to break up her romance and save himself the inconvenience of having to train another secretary.

Along the way, the play is peopled with a parade of colorful characters who are portrayed with mixed results. Among the more amusing performances are those of Craig Peddicord as a good-hearted actor with a gift for mimicry; Suzanne Zantop as a highfalutin, overrated actress; and W.P. Ellis as a Harpo Marx clone.

As the ordinary Ohioans who serve as their foils, Dan Bursi is suitably hot under the collar as much-put-upon Mr. Stanley; Betty Corwell is similarly huffy as Whiteside's battle-ax of a nurse; and Babs Dentz is sweetness itself as the Stanleys' cook -- one of the few locals with a fondness for Whiteside.

Lyston's Whiteside, of course, makes it easy to understand -- ZTC and even share -- her fondness. Playing the role as if "Whiteside" meant "soft side," he sets the tone for a production that, far from being built on irony, is a Valentine to days gone by. Alexander Woollcott -- the "real" Whiteside -- had an apartment called "Wit's End." At Cockpit, it would have been called "Wit's Delight."

THEATER REVIEW

What: "The Man Who Came to Dinner"

Where: Cockpit in Court, Essex Community College, 7201 Rossville Blvd.

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. July 3, matinees 2 p.m. Sundays. Through July 3

Tickets: $10

Call: (410) 780-6369

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