By Charles J. Morgan
In the sometimes arcane lexicon of the theatah there is the term “chestnut.” It simply refers to a good or actually immortal play that is done every season everywhere. It has long-standing universal appeal, and is audience friendly even when translated into Gheg, Tusk or Urdu. Such a play is George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” currently playing at the Minstrel Players’ venue in Northport for a limited run.
Set in 1939, the script is literally flooded with references associated with that era …. Haile Selassie, John L. Lewis, “Bubu” (Mahatma Gandhi), Charles Ross and even Noel Coward with a fast-paced output, wise-cracking, display of humor.
Director Ray Palen starred as the impossibly rude Sheridan Whiteside, a cultured, scholarly writer, pundit and author. Homer described Odysseus as speaking “winged words.” Whiteside’s words are winged too … laden with nuclear warheads. He demolishes any opposition with piercing, barbed onslaughts. Palen discharged his role as Whiteside expertly, consistently — like a lovable Falstaff. He is very seldom offstage and manages the signature wheelchair right up to the edge of the apron.
Michelle Torres plays Maggie Cutler, Whiteside’s long-suffering but capable secretary. Torres handled this role with called-up on professional aplomb even in a scene where she “quits” her job. Here she is still underplaying it, but with steely, scarcely concealed anger.
The Minstrels’ dynamic veteran character actress Maris Kastan is Miss Preen, Whiteside’s nurse. She plays out the dutiful nurse like someone hit with a baseball bat, but can’t figure out what hit her. That is until she dramatically resigns with a downstage center speech about going to work in a munitions factory. Kastan, together with Palen, is an outstanding example of getting into the essence of a role, making the acting real.
Banjo, a true slapstick role, is managed neatly by Ralph Carideo. He really eats up the scenery, combining an earthy Rabelaisian Vaudeville humor, delivered with punch and verve. Then we have Alicia James as glamor girl movie star Lorraine Sheldon. She is in love with one person: herself. Every line and move is promotional of a solitary object named Lorraine. She is frivolous, sexy, with a virtual murder streak … all of it with a compelling smile. This is not an easy role, but James handled it with perfection.
A triple role was held by Brian Hartwig. He was the eccentric Professor Metz in topee, tropical jacket and spectacles who delivers a cockroach colony. (Yes, they do eventually escape.) He has a bit part as Expressman, but bursts into a key role as Beverly Carlton, a knockoff of Noel Coward done to English accent languidity with all the sophistication Noel himself could have brought. Hartwig’s range of talent was palpable. One wishes to see him more on the Minstrels’ playbill.
Constraints of space preclude mention of others in this massive cast, however, Evan Donnellan stood out as Bert Jefferson, Tricia Ieronimo as Mrs. Stanley and Jim Connors as her long-suffering husband. A curtain call bow was taken by Valerie Rowe who undertook the role of Sara the Cook as a last-minute substitute. Well done!
The Minstrel Players may be a little cramped in their present venue, yet they have expanded smoothly with this show. One sees a massively bright future for them. Break a leg, Minstrels!
The Minstrel Players will present “The Man Who Came To Dinner” on May 2 at 8 p.m. and May 3 at 3 p.m. at the Houghton Hall Theatre at Trinity Episcopal Church, 130 Main St., Northport. Tickets are $20 adults, $15 seniors and children. For more information, call 631-732-2926 or visit www.minstrelplayers.org.