Anna Diaczynsky

The Man Who Came to Dinner at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Who hasn’t had a guest who overstayed his or her welcome? Playwrights Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman took this premise to a new level with their comic masterpiece The Man Who Came to Dinner. The unwelcome guest in this case overstayed not just a few hours or days. He didn’t leave their house for several weeks; and this extended stay occurred during the Christmas Season. The visitor in this story also happened to be an obnoxious, arrogant journalist, radio personality and worst of all a critic. He also had a penchant for meddling in other people’s affairs. The hosts may not have enjoyed his visit, but the audience at Haddonfield Plays and Players delighted at watching the ensuing mayhem. I attended the opening night performance on May 10th.

The dramatic version of The Man Who Came to Dinner premiered in 1939. The film version followed in 1942. Hart and Kaufman included numerous cultural references from the time period in the play. Because of these outdated examples, some of the references from the 30s and 40s may go over the heads of modern audiences just like the bluebirds flying over the White Cliffs of Dover. (I wrote that example and even I had to look up the reference.)

In the playbill Director Shannon Gingell included a website to consult. It provided a good summary of the era to aid theatregoers in understanding the play. The analysis also included details about the real life people upon whom the playwrights based their characters.

For those who enjoy watching eccentric characters interact on the stage, The Man Who Came to Dinner is a must see. While walking up the steps to Mr. and Mrs.  Stanley’s (Wes Anderson and Phyllis Josephson) Ohio home, Sheridan “Sherry” Whiteside (played by Pat DeFusco) fell on the ice. Dr. Bradley (Tim Sagges) diagnosed that Sherry fractured his hip and couldn’t leave the Stanley’s house for several weeks. While there, Sherry tormented his hosts, his nurse, Miss Preen (Gina Petti Baldasari) and his secretary Maggie Cutler (Sarah Blake).

Local reporter Bert Jefferson (Joe Godley) arrived and talked Sherry into giving him an interview. In the course of their discussion, Bert mentioned he aspired to be a playwright. He gave Sherry a copy of his play to read.

Following that development, Bert and Maggie became romantically involved. Maggie told Sherry that she’d planned on quitting her job to become Bert’s wife.

Good administrative assistants must have been hard to find circa 1940. In order to keep Maggie working for him, Sherry came up with a plan to break up the relationship through Bert’s literary aspirations.

Sheridan Whiteside was not a likable character. To use contemporary references, his personality melded that of a pompous radio host with the mindset of a self-help guru who received an Ivy League education. Director Shannon Gingell selected the legendary Pat DeFusco for the role. Mr. DeFusco captured all these components of Sherry’s personality while keeping the role funny.

Mr. DeFusco introduced the character brilliantly. From his wheelchair, he ordered the Stanleys that he was taking over their home. Later he sarcastically informed them that he would be suing them for his broken hip. When Mr. Stanley (Wes Anderson) complained out the $700 plus phone bill, Mr. DeFusco said he would pay it. With sardonic wit he informed Mr. Stanley he’d deduct the cost from the money he’d win in the lawsuit.

And then there were Sherry’s bad qualities. The Stanley’s daughter June (Taylor Kellar) explained in her uniquely emotional way that she wanted to marry Sandy (Victor E. Martinez). The gentleman worked at Mr. Stanley’s factory. He was also a union organizer. Carl Sandburg once said, “Beware of advice: even this.” Mr. DeFusco’s character proved that statement’s veracity by nonchalantly advising the two to marry.

But there was more. The Stanley’s son Richard (Zach Martin) longed to become a photographer. Sherry recommended he leave home to follow that pursuit.

Mr. DeFusco and Gina Petti Baldasari played well opposite one another. Mr. DeFusco shouted insults at her every time she (as the nurse Miss Preen) tried attending to him. Ms. Baldasari made Miss Preen more neurotic with every interaction the two had. By the end of the show, she transitioned her character into a bitter, cynic with a hatred of humankind: all thanks to Sherry. Ms. Baldasari also showed tremendous imagination through her enactment of a penguin attack victim.

Wes Anderson and Phyllis Josephson portrayed their characters’ contrasting personalities well. Both harbored different attitudes towards their “guest.” Ms. Josephson exhibited Mrs. Stanley’s star struck attitude towards Sherry. She gushed over the celebrities who called and sent Sherry Christmas presents. Mr. Anderson showed increasing agitation with Sherry’s annoying behavior.

As one can tell by this point, Sherry was not the person one would want stuck in his/her home. In addition to his abrasive personality, he liked to entertain guests.

Sherry received a series of visitors at the Stanley’s home for the Christmas Season. To put it politely, they were not the Three Wise Men. Professor Metz (played by Rob Repici) would be the closest. With his emphatic German accent Mr. Repici raved over the gift he presented. The professor gave Sherry a cockroach village; think an ant farm, only with actual buildings. It included a speaker so Sherry could listen to the bugs.

Other intriguing guests included the hyperactive movie star, Banjo (also played by Rob Repici). The overly histrionic actors Beverly (Jim Bloss) and Lorraine Sheldon (Julia Terruso) wished Sherry a Merry Christmas in person. Prison Guard Baker (Victor E. Martinez) brought along two convicts (Andrew Chaput and Kacper Milkus).

Although she already lived in the home, Mr. Stanley’s sister, Harriet, (Sheila McDonald) proved Sherry’s most intriguing visitor. Ms. McDonald spoke in a quiet voice and talked enigmatically. I’d suggest audience members pay close attention to Ms. McDonald’s eccentric behavior while watching the show.

Sarah Blake made Maggie into the strongest character in the cast. Ms. Blake played the role of someone falling in love during her scenes with Mr. Godley. She made Maggie into a tough counterpart to Mr. DeFusco’s bullying. Ms. Blake portrayed Maggie’s indomitability very believably.

I enjoyed The Man Who Came to Dinner more for the performances than the script. Hart and Kaufman based some of the characters on real people. The playwrights developed them as caricatures for this comedy. The depictions fit the show and made it much more entertaining. The performers conveyed the essences of the roles they brought to the stage.

Taylor Kellar played Sarah as a highly emotional and dramatic teenaged girl. Jim Bloss portrayed Beverly as an actor who put the “drama” into the word dramatic. Julia Terruso presented Lorraine as a self-absorbed stardom addicted actress willing to do anything to remain popular. Rob Repici brought tremendous energy to the stage in his performance as the colorful actor Banjo. Tim Sagges added his comedy skills to the wannabe author Dr. Bradley. All these performers selected excellent voices to suit their roles.

One line from the show grabbed my attention. Mr. DeFusco introduced one of the convicts as a murder named “Stephany.” My great-uncle John Stephany lived in Stockton, California during the 1940s. It’s doubtful he ever encountered either Hart or Kaufman, however. By all accounts my great-uncle was a well behaved gentleman. For these reasons, I suspect my surname didn’t appear in the original script.

In addition, Mr. DeFusco is familiar with my writing. I’m sure he’s well aware that the only thing I’ve ever “butchered” is the English language. I do have to acknowledge that particular slaughter will continue for years to come.

I’d also credit performers Gary Werner (who also worked as Technical Director while designing and building the set), Lisa Croce, dee Stenton-Litchford and Andrea Veneziano for their contributions to the performance. Omi Parrilla-Dunne made her debut as producer. She also stage managed and designed the lighting. Pat DeFusco served as Artistic Director, Renee McCleery designed the costumes, Anna Diaczynsky handled the properties. Sound Engineer Kalman Dunne worked on the set design, as well. Jen Tracy served as the Scenic Artist.

The Man Who Came to Dinner affected me on a personal level. After the curtain call I didn’t want to leave the theatre. It wasn’t just because of the hospitality I received from Phyllis Josephson, Lisa Croce, Rob Repici and Omi Parrilla-Dunne, either. Theatre fans have until May 25th to see this show at Haddonfield Plays and Players. After that HPP will do to Sherry what the Stanleys couldn’t.