Dinner Is Served Connoisseurs of bad behavior, take note: Sheridan Whiteside, the houseguest from hell, is back, in a hit Broadway revival of the Kaufman and Hart 1939 comedy The Man Who Came to Dinner. As the viper-tongued radio personality (modeled on waspish critic Alexander Woollcott) trapped in the home of Ohio philistines, Nathan Lane gives full rein to his talent for comic invective. Confined to a wheelchair by a hip fracture, Whiteside unleashes chaos upon his hosts, as their quiet home is overrun with cockroaches, penguins, Broadway divas, Hollywood comedians, and other exotic forms of animal life.
The Man Who Came to Dinner was the inaugural production of the Roundabout Theatre Company, at the new American Airlines Theatre on 42nd Street, an intimate space with an interior design that resembles other Broadway theatres of its era. When the curtain rises on The Man Who Came to Dinner, audiences gasp with surprise at Tony Walton's setting, which uses elements of the American Airlines/Selwyn redesign to create the august interior of the Stanley home. (Walton, along with longtime colleague Richard Pilbrow, of Theatre Projects Consultants, and restoration architect Francesca Russo, was involved in the design of the theatre. For more details about the design/restoration of the theatre, see ED July 2000.)
There is, notes Walton, a practical motivation for this set design. He was scenic and costume designer for the previous Roundabout production, Uncle Vanya, which was originally intended to open the American Airlines Theatre in May (for more details about Uncle Vanya, check out Entertainment Design's Online Exclusives at entertainmentdesignmag.com). When the new theatre wasn't ready in time, Uncle Vanya was moved to the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, forcing Walton, in a last-minute scramble, to adapt the scenery for a very different space.
For The Man Who Came to Dinner, Walton was determined that history would not repeat itself. "We all had this dread of being shoved, once again, into the Brooks," he says. "As an act of mischief, I thought, if we made the set something that belonged to the new theatre, they would be obligated not to throw us out." Apparently, the strategy worked, as the theatre was completed, if not by the first preview, then certainly by opening night.
Walton's design works also as a sly joke; the Stanleys are written to be prosperous philistines, whose bland good manners and self-satisfied way of life are no match for Whiteside and his gang of cronies. Thus the designer cunningly utilizes dozens of rococo details, taken from the auditorium, to create a domestic interior that is the perfect expression of pretentious good taste. The scene is the Stanleys' living room. A pair of tall double doors at stage right leads to the library, where Whiteside is initially confined (the doors frequently open to reveal Miss Preen, the long-suffering nurse driven to a near-breakdown by Whiteside's insults). At centerstage is a curved stairway, decorated with a wrought-iron banister, which provides a convenient escape route for members of the Stanley family Whiteside banishes to the second floor. Between these two elements, there is a dining room leading to the kitchen. At stage left, behind the sofa, a grand piano sits near a bay window (for Beverly Carlton, Kaufman and Hart's facsimile of Noel Coward, to perform a musical number). Also at stage right is an archway leading to the foyer and front door, through which Broadway star Lorraine Sheldon makes a series of magnificently stagy entrances.
With its many doors that open up to suggest other spaces, the set appears quite deep, but Walton notes that the playing area is relatively shallow, given director Jerry Zaks' preference for staging comic action as far downstage as possible. Also, Walton adds, "There is no false perspective, which is unusual for me in a shallow setting."
So far, Walton's set is not significantly different from the ground plan of Donald Oenslager's original design, and for good reason. "It's not a play you can revisit or update," he says, adding, "The farcical nature of the comedy is dependent on the geometry of the set. It's pretty clear that Kaufman and Hart worked out the geography before they wrote the play. I looked at the original ground plan, which was all corners and angles. I used the basic placement of the dining room, the library, the main entrance; then I swept it all into a curve, partly to mirror the auditorium, but also as a reference to the history of the Roundabout (whose previous theatre had a curved stage). It's a last wave back at the old space."
The real fun in Walton's design comes, however, from the details taken from the theatre itself. Noting the presence of various decorative murals in the auditorium, he says, "I thought we should pop one in the set [it's on the wall above the staircase]. It's a back-to-front version of one located above the house left boxes. They're looking at each other." At one point, Zaks has Harriet Stanley, the family's crazy aunt, strike a pose similar to the mural, "as if she had been the model for it," adds Walton. As an especially grand touch, a dome, just like the one in the theatre, is placed above centerstage "It's a trompe l'oeil dome, done like a flying curved cyc," says the designer.
Sometimes, his design approach helped Walton save money. "With all the decorative items on the set," he says, "except for the acorns above the door frame capitals, which are specific only to the doors of the set, we took advantage of the molds used in the theatre to restore decorations there." Also, the designer planned to carpet the stage with material left over from the auditorium. When not enough was available, a similar color was found for the set. Overall, the designer describes the color scheme for the set as "Romanesque reds, with green and gold detailing and a variegated nighttime blue for the dome." The set contains one rather personal detail for Walton. "My great-uncle was a painter named Harry Bowler," he says. "I came across a book of his at the Royal Academy of Art in London and used a part of one of the pictures as the backdrop outside the bay window. It was done in 1939, when the play was written."
Among other details, Walton mentions the unnerving "cockroach city" (an insect farm given to Whiteside by his friend Professor Metz), designed by his assistant Daniela Galli, and the highly detailed mummy case (into which Lorraine Sheldon is dispatched at the play's climax), on which Joanie Schlafer and associate designer Dan Kuchar labored intensively during the preview period. Both of these special props were constructed by Prism Production Services.
Of course, no new theatre is without its glitches - "You always go through months of hiccups and horrors," says Walton - but this one has been, he maintains, relatively easygoing. "There are the usual issues that come with a new theatre, but this one has had fewer than has been my experience in the past." Maybe because the spirit of Sheridan Whiteside has everyone on their best behavior, whether they like it or not.
The Man Who Came to Dinner also features costumes by William Ivey Long, lighting by Paul Gallo, sound by Peter Fitzgerald, and wig and hair design by Paul Huntley. Scenery was built and painted by Hudson Scenic Studio, with murals and backdrops painted by Scenic Art Studio of Norwalk, CT. Technical supervision for the production was provided by Ken Kenneally and Brian Lynch of Unitech II Corp. Sheridan Whiteside holds court at the American Airlines Theatre until October 15 If you can't see him before then, don't fret; the production is being aired live on PBS, on the series Stage on Screen, October 7.