Walter Mencken 9 a.m., May 23
The Man Who Came to Dinner at Coronado Playhouse
He was Alexander Woollcott (1887-1943). In his time more people may have admired, and feared, him than even knew about Alexander the Great. As drama critic for various newspapers, he was always the star of his reviews, praising and damning with ornate prose. He wrote "Shouts and Murmurs," a gossip column for The New Yorker, and his radio show on CBS, "The Town Crier," made him a national celebrity.
Woollcott was also a member of the famed Algonquin Club Round Table, where Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, George S. Kaufman and other wits exchanged barbs during 10-martini lunches.
One of Woollcott's most famous: Los Angeles is "seven suburbs in search of a city."
Of pianist Oscar Levant: "There's nothing wrong [with him] that a miracle can't fix."
Some critics said that of Woollcott: he was all style and no content - all siss, but no boom-bah - though he fostered the careers of others, including Harpo Marx.
To his credit, Woollcott took as well as he gave. And in 1939, George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart turned their comedic sights on the man who swore the Brandy Alexander was named for him.
Sheridan Whiteside (i.e. Woollcott) fractures his hip outside the home of Ernest Stanley, in small Mesalia, Ohio. He banishes the Stanley's upstairs and turns the library and living room into Command Central for, it would seem, world affairs.
The phone bill - $784 and counting - includes Gandhi (Whiteside calls him "Boo-boo"), Albert Schweitzer, and Walt Disney. Admiral Byrd sends four penguins from the South Pole. Super celebrities Beverly Carlton (Noel Coward) and Banjo (Harpo Marx) pay visits. And what follows is a three-act circus. Whiteside sits center-stage, stuck in a wooden wheelchair - a la FDR? - and holds court.
It's hard to imagine a current example of Woollcott (if it's Larry King, then how the mighty have fallen!). Maybe Bye Bye, Birdie when rock star Conrad Birdie (i.e. Elvis) goes to Sweet Apple, Ohio).
At the Coronado Playhouse, Phil Johnson lacks Woollcott's Epicurean girth. No matter. Johnson plays the curmudgeon with the requisite emotional size, gaudy verbal style, and some of the most deliciously smoldering slow-takes on record.
Johnson also suggests a heart deep beneath the bluster (as did Woollcott, who played Whiteside when the show toured).
Johnson's memorable performance isn't the only draw. Director Ruff Yeager does a knock-out cameo as suave-affected Beverly Carlton, and his swoon-singing of "What Am I to Do?"'s a hoot.
Kim Strassburger (Maggie Cutler, faithful factotum) and Frances Anita Rivera (self-dramatizing Lorraine Sheldon) flank Whiteside with calm reserve and acute melodrama. Rivera wears the classiest of Jeanne Reith's amazing collection of period costumes.
Performances among the large cast are a mite uneven, but Amy Dell (Ms. Preen, the nurse), Eric Poppick (harried Mr. Stanley), and Philip John (Dr. Bradley) keep the laughs going.
Matt Scott's wide, detailed set has appeal and the necessary sturdiness, since Kaufman and Hart were geniuses at running actors on and off with snappy entrance-/exit lines and stopwatch precision.
Hart has also written one of my absolutely favorite books about the theater. Every budding playwright should read his Act One - and everyone else who loves the living stage.
More like this:
- Life’s kind of beautiful — March 11, 2015
- Fred Harlow's acting bucket list — March 5, 2015
- Act One — July 11, 2012
- Boo Boo Davis's Undercover Blues — Dec. 23, 2011
- Give Albert Brooks a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Drive! — Sept. 16, 2011