Sarah Blake

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 Because of these outdated examples, some of the references from the 30s and 40s may go over the heads of modern audiences just like the bluebirds flying over the White Cliffs of Dover.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.

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Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at Haddonfield Plays and Players

This Friday the 13th theatregoers got lucky. Haddonfield Plays and Players decided to present a witty take on some dirty rotten scoundrels. There may not be honor among thieves, but they sure displayed some pretty good acting, singing and dancing chops. I attended the opening night performance on July 13th.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels told the story of aging con-man Lawrence Jameson (played by Chris Fitting). Accompanied by his assistant, police Inspector Andre Thibault (Kacper Miklus), he took on the guise of a fictitious prince. He travelled the Riviera swindling women. During one con he encountered Freddie Benson (Sidney (Syd) Manfred Maycock III). The latter aspired to a life of chicanery but struggled to get his start. He asked Jameson to teach him the art of the craft.

Initially reluctant, Jameson discovered that one of his marks, the gun toting Jolene Oakes, (Lauren Elisabeth) already arranged their wedding. Facing an exile to the prairies of Oklahoma Jameson reconsidered the novice’s offer. The two teamed up on a comical skit to dissuade her. Then the partnership deteriorated.

The two made a deal. Whoever could swindle the next wealthy woman they met for $50,000 could remain in the area. The loser would leave town. Enter the “soap girl”, Christine Colgate (Kristina Coia). As they utilized some creative hijinks to win the challenge, both men found themselves falling in love with her.

I’ll avoid giving away spoilers. I will note that the script contained outstanding use of foreshadowing. Author Jeffrey Lane and lyricist David Yazbek used it with great subtlety, but it all made sense at the story’s conclusion: and what a conclusion! The ending contained plot twists that rivaled the Saw movies finales.

This show gets my Sienkiewicz Award. This honor comes from a line in Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis: “I wish it had been worse, because only then could I find the appropriate words to praise it.” Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (directed by Ryk Lewis) impressed me that much.

Chris Fitting cemented his reputation as the sharpest dressed man in South Jersey community theatre. There’s only performance I’ve seen where Mr. Fitting didn’t wear either a suit or a tuxedo. It’s refreshing that even in the modern era some people still find it appropriate to dress up for a night at the theatre.

The wardrobe aside Mr. Fitting’s style of performing puts him in a unique class. The aristocratic tone with the hint of a British accent suited his character brilliantly. He also displayed exceptional skill in adding an Austrian accent to it when his character played the doctor from Vienna.

Mr. Fitting executed some complex song and dance numbers flawlessly. I enjoyed his somber rendition of the ballad, “Love Sneaks In.” Through this tune he added an unexpected dimension to the con-man’s personality. He performed this adjustment in a believable manner.

Syd Maycock possesses a genius for comedy. His befuddled facial expressions while Ms. Koia sang “Nothing is Too Wonderful to Be True” were just as superb as her singing. He made it obvious he couldn’t believe the things she said. When she prodded him to continue the song, he stumbled over lyrics like he was hearing them for the first time.

When trying to deceive Ms. Coia’s character into giving him the money Mr. Maycock utilized a tender voice of his own. The way he exaggerated it made the inflection hysterical.

His best number occurred when he performed “Great Big Stuff.” Ryk Lewis’ choreography turned it into an awesome song and dance routine with the ensemble. After a performance like this some great big stuff is in store for Mr. Maycock.

Kristina Coia wins the first ever Sienkiewicz Award for Best Actress. Ms. Coia pulled off the most ingenious character transformation I’ve ever seen, heard or read. I won’t give it away as it would ruin the experience for those unfamiliar with the story. Ms. Coia enacted the change in a way that will still surprise audiences.

Aside from revolutionizing the concept of character transformations, Ms. Coia also displayed exceptional vocal capability. She selected the proper voice to sing her character’s songs. Ms. Coia’s soft, tender vocals worked very well on numbers such as “Nothing is Too Wonderful to Be True.”

These three thespians complimented each other wonderfully. The “Ruffhousin’ Mit Shuffhausen” made for the show’s highpoint. Mr. Fitting attempted to win the bet by forcing Mr. Maycock to admit he could feel below his waist. Mr. Fitting made this effort while singing, dancing and hitting him on the thighs with a cane. Mr. Maycock’s expressions and strained denials were impeccable. Ms. Coia’s concern and naïveté added the perfect enhancement to the scene.

I’m familiar with Gina Petti’s skill as a dancer. Ms. Petti displayed it often in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. I’d never heard the performer’s singing skills. The show provided the opportunity. As Muriel Ms. Petti performed lovely renditions of “What Was a Woman to Do” and the “Like Zis/Like Zat” reprise.

Kacper Miklus delivered and sang his lines in a perfect French accent. He joined Ms. Petti for the duet “Like Zis/Like Zat” and crooned the solo “Chimp in a Suit.” He got laughs trying to play the suave suitor to Ms. Petti while struggling to ignite a cigarette with an empty lighter.

Jennifer Gordon choreographed the “Oklahoma?” routine. This one combined elaborate dancing with comedy. Lauren Elizabeth led the ensemble through one rockin’ hoedown.

I would also credit performers Mary Simrin, Julieann Calabrese, Tony Yates, Sarah Blake, Jen Stefan, Rebecca Dilks, Sheila M. Haswell, Andrea Veneziano, Briant Lopez, Ryan Fanelli, and Robert Haggerty for their contributions to the performance.

I had some minor issues with the script. The show broke fourth wall a few times. Most notably when Jolene informed Lawrence that she arranged their wedding, he asked, “Did I miss a scene?”

I also couldn’t tell when the story occurred. The script contained references to Bob Guccione, Hugh Hefner and Donald Trump; the latter because of his wealth. As the movie of the same name released in 1988, I figured it took place during the 1980s. Then Lawrence made a joke alluding to George W. Bush. I found this inconsistent.

In the “Give Them What They Want” number, Lawrence added, “then you leave them wanting more.” The cast and crew of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels did just that. The same song borrowed a line from John Keats’ Endymion:  “Truth is beauty.” It may be, but it’s not as beautiful as this performance. If you don’t believe me you have until August 3rd to determine for yourself.