A house guest with a dangerous bite: Easthampton Theater Company revives vintage screwball comedy, ‘The Man Who Came to Dinner’

Travis Maider, right, playing Beverly Carlton — a character modeled on Noël Coward — and Gilana Chelimsky, playing Maggie Cutler, rehearse a scene at the First Congregational Church of Southampton from Easthampton Theater Company’s “The Man Who Came to Dinner.”

Travis Maider, right, playing Beverly Carlton — a character modeled on Noël Coward — and Gilana Chelimsky, playing Maggie Cutler, rehearse a scene at the First Congregational Church of Southampton from Easthampton Theater Company’s “The Man Who Came to Dinner.” STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Members from Easthampton Theater Company’s production of “The Man Who Came to Dinner” rehearse a scene at the First Congregational Church of Southampton. It’s the latest revival of a play that opened in New York in 1939.

Members from Easthampton Theater Company’s production of “The Man Who Came to Dinner” rehearse a scene at the First Congregational Church of Southampton. It’s the latest revival of a play that opened in New York in 1939. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Larry Picard, right, and Travis Maider work on a scene from “The Man Who Came to Dinner” by Easthampton Theater Company. Both their characters were modeled on real-life figures from the 1930s theater world. 

Larry Picard, right, and Travis Maider work on a scene from “The Man Who Came to Dinner” by Easthampton Theater Company. Both their characters were modeled on real-life figures from the 1930s theater world.  STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Janelle Matrow, right, and Chris Ferry rehearse a scene from Easthampton Theater Company’s “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” a late 1930s screwball company that the ensemble says has plenty of relevance in today’s celebrity-obsessed world.

Janelle Matrow, right, and Chris Ferry rehearse a scene from Easthampton Theater Company’s “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” a late 1930s screwball company that the ensemble says has plenty of relevance in today’s celebrity-obsessed world. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Director Eva Husson-Stockhamer makes a point during a rehearsal for “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” Easthampton Theater Company’s coming production.

Director Eva Husson-Stockhamer makes a point during a rehearsal for “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” Easthampton Theater Company’s coming production. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Travis Maider plays Beverly Carlton, one of the flamboyant characters in Easthampton Theater Company’s revival of the screwball comedy “The Man Who Came to Dinner.” His part is modeled on the English playwright, composer and grand wit Noël Coward.

Travis Maider plays Beverly Carlton, one of the flamboyant characters in Easthampton Theater Company’s revival of the screwball comedy “The Man Who Came to Dinner.” His part is modeled on the English playwright, composer and grand wit Noël Coward. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Gilana Chelimsky, as a long-suffering secretary to the egotistical character Sheldon Whiteside, rehearses a scene from “The Man Who Came to Dinner” by Easthampton Theater Company.

Gilana Chelimsky, as a long-suffering secretary to the egotistical character Sheldon Whiteside, rehearses a scene from “The Man Who Came to Dinner” by Easthampton Theater Company. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Travis Maider, left, playing Beverly Carlton — a character modeled on Noël Coward — and Gilana Chelimsky, playing Maggie Cutler, rehearse a scene at the First Congregational Church of Southampton from Easthampton Theater Company’s “The Man Who Came to Dinner.”

Travis Maider, left, playing Beverly Carlton — a character modeled on Noël Coward — and Gilana Chelimsky, playing Maggie Cutler, rehearse a scene at the First Congregational Church of Southampton from Easthampton Theater Company’s “The Man Who Came to Dinner.” STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Travis Maider, left, playing Beverly Carlton — a character modeled on Noël Coward — and Gilana Chelimsky, playing Maggie Cutler, rehearse a scene at the First Congregational Church of Southampton from Easthampton Theater Company’s “The Man Who Came to Dinner.”

Travis Maider, left, playing Beverly Carlton — a character modeled on Noël Coward — and Gilana Chelimsky, playing Maggie Cutler, rehearse a scene at the First Congregational Church of Southampton from Easthampton Theater Company’s “The Man Who Came to Dinner.” STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 06-07-2024 12:42 PM

Modified: 06-07-2024 3:09 PM


At some point in our lives, most of us have the misfortune to have someone come to our home who quickly wears out their welcome, for dinner or a party or maybe a weekend visit: an obnoxious uncle, your daughter’s new boyfriend, a neighbor’s work colleague.

What if that unwelcome guest was hanging around for a month or more?

In its newest production, Easthampton Theater Company (ETC) has revived the mid-20th century screwball comedy “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” about an acerbic radio host who ends up stranded with an Ohio family in the weeks leading up to Christmas and turns their house upside down with his insults and demands, all while holding court with a stream of bizarre and sometimes famous guests.

It’s the second time ETC has turned to an older play in the last several months, after the company staged Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song,” an early 1980s play, this past January at CitySpace.

But with “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” ETC has reached back even further: The play debuted in New York City in 1939 and was turned into a 1941 film that included Bette Davis and Jimmy Durante.

As Producer Michael Budnick and Director Eva Husson-Stockhamer see it, “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” which opens June 20 at the Williston Northampton School, has plenty of relevance in 2024.

“It’s basically a satire of celebrity and egotism, that whole obsession with fame, which to me is totally relevant to what we see today,” said Budnick, ETC’s president.

And Husson-Stockhamer, the company’s vice president, says the play also had a successful revival in New York in 2000 that was nominated for a Tony and a Drama Desk award.

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Husson-Stockhamer, the performing arts director at Mohawk Trail Regional High School, previously directed a version of “The Man Who Came to Dinner” at Holyoke Catholic High School and says the students there “absolutely loved being part of the play … it’s very funny and over the top, with a collection of really flamboyant characters.”

The play’s main figure, Sheridan “Sherry” Whiteside, was based on Alexander Woolcott, a prominent radio personality and drama critic based in New York who was known for his often biting commentary and his connections with other creative personalities, including the play’s authors, George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.

Those two playwrights modeled some other characters in “The Man Who Came to Dinner” on real-life figures, such as Groucho Marx, the legendary comedian, and Noël Coward, the British playwright, actor, composer and singer who, like Woolcott, was known for his wit and flamboyance.

In the play, Whiteside, on a radio tour, has been invited to dine in the home of a wealthy business owner in a town in Ohio. But he slips on ice just outside the house and injures his hip, forcing him to remain in the home for weeks while he recovers — during which he makes life hell for the people looking after him, including his secretary, a local doctor and nurse, and his hosts, Mr. and Mrs. Stanley.

Meantime, a string of Whiteside’s strange friends and acquaintances, such as one who brings him a penguin, show up at the house, while a local journalist and aspiring playwright catches the eye of Whiteside’s long-suffering secretary, Maggie Cutler, who suddenly sees a way to escape her employer.

Whiteside also develops a surprisingly good rapport with the Stanleys’ adult children, June and Richard.

“He’s not an easy person to be around,” said Husson-Stockhamer, “but he’s also pretty entertaining.”

A bigger stage

Whiteside is just one character in what is ETC’s biggest production so far. “The Man Who Came to Dinner” has a cast of 24, and to accommodate them all, the company is staging the play at Williston Northampton after developing a partnership earlier this year with the school. (ETC’s first two productions took place in the cozy confines of CitySpace’s Blue Room.)

In late May, many of the cast members gathered in a community room at the Southampton Congregational Church to work on some of the scenes, including one in which a glamorous actress friend of Whiteside, Lorraine Sheldon (played by Janelle Matrow), breezes into the Stanley house for a visit.

“Darling, I have so much to tell you, I don’t know where to start,” said Matrow.

“Well, start with the dirt first, dear,” said Larry Picard, who plays Whiteside. “That’s what I want to hear.”

Picard, seated in a wheelchair — “This chair fits my fanny as nothing else ever has,” he said — leaned into his role as a dispenser of these kind of bon mots, asking at one point how Lorraine was doing in her pursuit of a wealthy Englishman named Lord Bottomley, who has the money to keep her satisfied but comes with a few drawbacks, too.

“Has he had his teeth fixed yet?” said Picard. “Every time I order Roquefort cheese I think of those teeth ...”

Picard’s barbs can fly in all directions, such as in an earlier scene when he demands that a visiting doctor, Mr. Stanley, and a few other people vacate the room he’s taken over in the Ohio house: “And now will you all leave quietly, or must I ask my secretary to pass among you with a baseball bat?”

At the Southampton church, there were also plenty of laughs when Deb Jacobson, playing Harriet Stanley, Mr. Stanley’s eccentric sister, gave Picard a boxed gift but muffed her last line: “It’s only a trifle, but I wanted you to have it. It’s a picture of me as I used to be … Merry Christmas, dear Mr. Stanley.”

“I’m Mr. Whiteside, Miss Stanley,” Picard said in a singsong voice, as Jacobson put a hand to her face, shaking her head and laughing.

They repeated the scene, but Jacobson ended her bit by again referring to Picard as “Mr. Stanley.”

“No, I’m the other old guy!” Picard said in mock despair.

The Whiteside character, Husson-Stockhamer said, actually has his redeeming qualities and can be perfectly charming when his comments aren’t dipped in acid.

In the play, he encourages the two Stanley children, June and Richard, to pursue their dreams — June to elope with a man her father disapproves of, and Richard to become a photographer — and he also tries to do right in the end by Cutler, his longtime secretary.

Meantime, there are plenty of twists and turns in the plot to keep people guessing how the play will end, Husson-Stockhamer noted.

Having a bigger stage to work with this time has also enabled ETC to develop a more elaborate set, she said, that will represent different rooms in the Stanley household, with the costumes and decor recalling the America of the late 1930s/early 1940s.

As well, there are about 250 seats available at the Williston Northampton theater, compared to perhaps 80 in CitySpace, Budnick noted.

“We’re thrilled that more people will have an opportunity to see this play,” he said.

“The Man Who Came to Dinner” will be staged June 20-22 at 7:30 p.m. at the Willston School theater and on June 23 at 2 p.m. Tickets are available at easthamptontheater.com.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.