Sheridan Whiteside rides again. And triumphs in gloriously comic defeat as he has done ever since first conquering the stage in in 1939. That was when Kaufman and Hart introduced their satirized portrait of Alexander Woollcott to an appreciatively waiting world.
According to "Best Plays," the comedy ran for 739 performances on Broadway. The train of Sheridan Whitesides that began with Monty Woolley went on to include Clifton Webb, Woollcott himself, and both of the coauthors.
Judged by the unalloyed delight of the opening-night audience at the Broadway Circle in the Square, Ellis Rabb's Whiteside can take Messalia, Ohio, in 1980 as he has been doing for more than 40 years.
To begin with, Mr. Rabb fulfills Woollcott's description of himself as a man "who can strut sitting down." As Kaufman-Hart's lampoon of the celebrated reviewer, raconteur, and radio town crier, Whiteside is the monster cherub. He is Peter Pan played by Captain Hook. He is master of the devastating put-down and the unveiled insult.
A contemporary critic saw Whiteside- Woollcott as filled with "the carbolic acid of human kindness, . . . the ruthless wit, the wayward taste, disarming prejudice, and relentless sentimentality." Such is the guest whom circumstance inflicts on the unfortunate Stanleys of Ohio. Mr. Rabb is tall and patrician rather than short and Falstaffian. He endows the character of Whiteside with extravagant comic hauteur and creates a tour de force of his own.
"The Man Who Came to Dinner" tells how a wintry accident immures the critic- lecturer in the Stanley home and promptly shatters its provincial calm. Discovering that his attractive and indispensable secretary (Maureen Anderman) has fallen in love with the personable editor (Peter Coffield) of the local newspaper, Whiteside schemes to "rescue" Maggie from her misalliance. Mr. Fix-it's plots and ploys involve a succession of passing celebrities, specifically transatlantic star Lorraine Sheldon (Carrie Nye), British playwright- composer-actor Beverly Carlton (Roderick Cook), and Hollywood zany Banjo (Leonard Frey) -- all hilariously spoofed in the performance staged by Stephen Porter.
The celebrity incursions illustrate the shrewd method of this Midwestern madness, which is to play off as many facets as possible of the outside Whiteside persona, from his appetite for sweets to his greed for gossip.Nor is the great man spared his comeuppances. One of them occurs when the unfortunate nurse (Anita Dangler) he has bullied unmercifully at last revolts and announces that caring for him has decided her to forsake nursing and enter a munitions factory. First-nighters cheered as Nurse Preen exploded. They were equally happy when Maggie told off Big Lord Fauntleroy.
In addition to those already mentioned, the Circle in the Square revival is admirably served by, among others, Richard Woods and Patricia O'Connell as the longsuffering Stanleys, Josh Clark and Amanda Carlin as their rebellious children, and Kate Wilkinson as the fey and mysterious Harriet Stanley. There are also Nicholas Martin as the professor who comes bearing a cockroach village as a Christmas gift, Robert Nichols as the medico with a manuscript under his arm, and Bill McCutcheon and Yolanda Childress as the servants Whiteside would tempt to defect.
The comfortable living-room set and the 1930s costumes are by Zack Brown, with lighting by Jeff Davis. Thanks to all concerned, Sheridan Whiteside lives on in this obstreperous classic by two of America's greatest comedy collaborators. And so does "The Man Who Came to Dinner."