Monday, October 5, 2009

The Man Who Came to Dinner, Ensemble Theatre

(James Kisicki as Sheridan Whiteside, David Hundertmark as Mr. Stanley and Marcia Mandell as Mrs. Stanley)

When Lucia and Licia Colombi, the twin sisters who founded Ensemble Theatre, died within months of each other earlier this year, the fate of the theater was in question. After all, the Colombis had guided the group through 29 years of productions at various locations, with passion, skill and determination.

Well, some new principals players have emerged, including Martin Cosentino as Managing Director and Bernard Canepari as Artistic Director. And under their leadership, Ensemble opens its 30th season with an old comedy chestnut: George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s The Man Who Came to Dinner.

This 1939 tale of an irascible radio star, Sheridan Whiteside, who is forced to spend weeks recuperating in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Stanley in Mesalia, Ohio has delighted generations of theater audiences and movie fans. It features a galaxy of quirky roles and a non-stop downpour of inventive insults from the guest of honor.

Of course the material is a bit mildewed; many references to Whiteside’s celebrity friends will soar over the heads of anyone less than 40 (or 50?) years old. So it rests on capable comedic actors refining their timing and creating memorable characters to carry the day.

Under the spirited direction of Brian Zoldessy, the results for the Ensemble cast are mixed, with some superior performances dimmed slightly by other less successful efforts. But overall this Man is quite entertaining, even if it’s not the rib-cracking laugh fest it could be.

The biggest plus of the production resides exactly where it should, in the role of Whiteside himself. Longtime local commercial voice-over talent James Kisicki wallows happily in the snarky lines Kaufman and Hart provide. Although not imposing in stature, Kisicki has a booming voice and immense stage presence, making Whiteside both fearsome, hilarious and at some moments even cute.

Kisicki’s character is matched, ego point for ego point, by Greg Violand’s Beverly Carlton, an over-the-top Hollywood actor and singer modeled on Noel Coward. Although he’s only on stage for one scene, Violand is a stitch, and he’s so funny he even manages to overcome his dull and ultimately nonsensical song solo, “What Am I To Do” (a donation to the playwrights from Cole Porter—beware of songwriters bearing gifts).

Also excellent is Zoldessy doing double duty as Whiteside’s buddy Banjo, a hyperactive skirt-chaser clearly fashioned in the likeness of Harpo Marx. And Bobby Thomas (another veteran of area recording booths) does a splendid job as the relentlessly upbeat yet hapless Dr. Bradley, who is trying to shove his voluminous autobiography under Whiteside’s nose.

Virtually every other member of the large cast has a stellar moment or two, but there are enough flat deliveries and missed beats to undercut the delicate comedic momentum this play relies upon. So the last couple scenes, which should be riotous, come off as curiously sedate.

But in total this is a fine re-start for Ensemble Theatre. And the hope is that, with other theaters closing their doors, the Ensemble group can stay open and keep producing the fine fare they have in the past.

The Man Who Came to Dinner
Through October 25 produced by the Ensemble Theatre,
at the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue,

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