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The Man Who Came to Dinner is a comedy in three acts by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. It debuted on October 16, 1939 at the Music Box Theatre in New York City, where it ran there until 1941, closing after 739 performances. It then enjoyed a number of New York and London revivals. The first London production was staged at The Savoy Theatre starring Robert Morley and Coral Browne. Browne stated in a televised biographical interview broadcast on UK Channel 4 in 1990 (entitled Caviar to the General) that she bought the rights to the play, borrowing money from her dentist to do so. When she died, her will revealed that she had received royalties for all future productions and adaptations.
The song "What Am I To Do" was written by Cole Porter specifically for the play.
The play is set in the small town of Mesalia, Ohio in the weeks leading to Christmas in the 1930s. The exposition reveals that the famously outlandish radio wit Sheridan Whiteside ('Sherry' to his friends) of New York City was invited to dine at the house of rich factory owner Ernest W. Stanley and his family. However, before Whiteside enters the house, he slips on a patch of ice outside the front door and injures his hip. He is attended by Dr. Bradley, the absent-minded town physician, Miss Preen, his frantic nurse, and Maggie Cutler, his faithful secretary. Confined to the house for a month, Sherry drives his hosts mad by viciously insulting them, monopolizing their house and staff, running up large phone bills, and receiving many bizarre guests, including paroled convicts. However, Sherry manages to befriend the Stanleys' children, June and Richard, as well as Mr. Stanley's eccentric older sister Harriet.
He also befriends local newspaper man and aspiring playwright Bert Jefferson, but soon learns that Maggie is in love with Bert, and plans to leave her job to marry him. Unable to bear losing his secretary, Sherry invites his friend, the glamorous and loose-living actress Lorraine Sheldon to Messalia to look at Bert's new play, hoping she can break up the marriage plans. Dr. Bradley tells Sherry he was mistaken in his diagnosis, and Sherry is actually well enough to leave. Sherry buys the doctor's silence by pretending to want to work on a book with him, and for the rest of the play keeps brushing him off.
As Christmas nears, Sherry encourages June Stanley to elope with a young union organizer whom her father disapproves of, and Richard to run away and pursue his dream of becoming a photographer. Lorraine arrives, and Maggie instantly suspects Sherry's involvement. They receive a visit from their friend, noted British actor and playwright Beverly Carlton. Maggie learns Beverly can do a great impression of Lord Bottomley, an English lord whom Lorraine is hoping to marry. She gets Beverly to call Lorraine and pretend to be Lord Bottomley proposing, to get Lorraine to leave. However, Sherry soon sees through the ruse. When Lorraine realizes Maggie's involvement she starts to seduce Bert as revenge.
The next day, Christmas Day, Bert is enthralled with Lorraine and Maggie, hurt by Sherry's betrayal, tells him she is quitting. Feeling guilty, Sherry tries to think of a way to get Lorraine out of Messalia. He gets help from an unexpected visit by his friend, movie comedian Banjo. Mr. Stanley, however, furious at Sherry's interference with his family, has now ordered Sherry's eviction from the house and gives him fifteen minutes to leave. All looks hopeless until an Egyptian mummy case is delivered to Sherry (a Christmas gift from the Khedive of Egypt). Sherry and Banjo manage to trick Lorraine into the mummy case and shut her inside. Sherry then sees a photo of Harriet Stanley when she was younger, and recognizes her as a famous murderer. Using this information he blackmails Mr. Stanley into helping them get the case onto Banjo's plane.
Sherry now stands, telling Maggie she is free to marry Bert, and prepares to return to New York by train. Unfortunately, as he is leaving the house, he slips on another patch of ice, injuring himself again. He is carried back inside the house screaming as the curtain falls.
Kaufman and Hart wrote the play as a vehicle for their friend Alexander Woollcott, the model for the lead character Sheridan Whiteside. At the time the play was written Woollcott was famous both as the theater critic who helped re-launch the career of the Marx Brothers and as the star of the national radio show The Town Crier. He was well liked by both Kaufman and Hart, but that did not stop him from displaying the obnoxious characteristics displayed by Whiteside in the play. Kaufman and Hart had promised a vehicle for Woollcott but had been unable to find a plot that suited them until one day Woollcott showed up, unannounced, at Hart's Bucks County estate, and proceeded to take over the house. He slept in the master bedroom, terrorized Hart's staff, and generally acted like Sheridan Whiteside. On his way out he wrote in Hart's guest book, "This is to certify that I had one of the most unpleasant times I ever spent." Hart related the story to Kaufman soon afterwards. As they were both laughing about it, Hart remarked that he was lucky that Woollcott had not broken his leg and become stuck there. Kaufman looked at Hart and the idea was born.
A plot point mentions actress and Broadway producer Katharine Cornell. The character Bert Jefferson writes a play, and Whiteside promises to give it to Cornell for her to produce.
Woollcott was delighted with The Man Who Came to Dinner and was offered the role for its Broadway debut. With his busy schedule of radio broadcasts and lectures, he declined, and Monty Woolley played the part. Woollcott did play Whiteside in the West Coast version of the play and was even joined by Harpo Marx, who portrayed his own referenced character, Banjo.
The printed edition of the play starts with the inscription "To Alexander Woollcott, for reasons that are nobody's business."
The original cast as billed:
The production was adapted for a 1942 feature film, scripted by Philip G. Epstein and Julius J. Epstein and directed by William Keighley. The film featured Monty Woolley, Bette Davis, Ann Sheridan, Billie Burke, Jimmy Durante, Mary Wickes and Richard Travis. It had its world premiere at the Capitol Theater in Paragould, Arkansas.
In 1949, The Man Who Came to Dinner was produced for CBS Radio for The Hotpoint Holiday Hour. The production starred Charles Boyer, Jack Benny, Gene Kelly, Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, and Rosalind Russell. It was also adapted for the Lux Radio Theater on March 27, 1950, starring Clifton Webb as Sheridan Whiteside and Lucille Ball as Maggie Cutler. The show was hosted by William Keighley, who directed the 1942 film adaptation.
For Christmas Day, 2000, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a Marcy Kahan adaptation of The Man Who Came to Dinner approved by the Hart and Kaufman estates which starred Simon Callow as Whiteside, Elizabeth McGovern as Maggie, with Conleth Hill as Bert Jefferson, Cheryl Campbell as Lorraine Sheldon, John Sessions as Banjo and Professor Metz, Colin Stinton as Mr. Stanley, and Malcolm Sinclair as Beverley Carlton. Moira Petty, writing in The Stage, said, ""Director Ned Chaillet elicited from his cast ... a smart, gag-telling pace, which gave it a sensational period flavour."
The play and subsequent film served as the basis for the 1967 musical Sherry!, with a book and lyrics by James Lipton and music by Laurence Rosenthal. Clive Revill starred as Sheridan Whiteside. The show ran on Broadway for 72 performances.
A 1980 revival directed by Stephen Porter ran for 19 previews and 85 performances at the Circle in the Square Theatre. The cast included Ellis Rabb, Roderick Cook, Leonard Frey, Carrie Nye, and Jamey Sheridan. Drama Desk Award nominations went to Cook for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play and Nye for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play.
A 2000 revival, which ran for 85 performances, was produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company and directed by Jerry Zaks. The cast included Nathan Lane (Sheridan Whiteside), Jean Smart (Lorraine Sheldon), Harriet Sansom Harris (Maggie Cutler), and Lewis J. Stadlen (Banjo). In an interview prior to the opening, Lane said, "There's a danger in playing Whiteside. In the movie, Monty Woolley's portrayal at times came across as mean for mean's sake. It's when it gets nasty or bitchy that it goes off in the wrong direction." He suggested that his performance was influenced by Woollcott's repressed sexuality, stating, "He had a lot of...things he didn't want to deal with."
The 2000 production received mixed reviews. Variety, The Advocate and Talkin' Broadway reviewed it positively, and Entertainment Weekly gave the production a B+, calling it "as fresh a send-up as an SNL sketch and [with] an even more inspired plot" and singling out Smart's "swanning demonstration of ultimate showbiz phoniness" for praise. In The New York Times, however, Ben Brantley disliked the production, writing that "What should be a buoyant balloon of an evening [is] more often an exercise in deflation." Brantley praised Stadlen but found most of the acting, including Lane's, to be "a series of flourishes that sell individual jokes and epigrams without being anchored to character." Smart was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play and Stadlen was nominated for the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play, though neither won. The production was broadcast by PBS on October 7, 2000, three days after the New York production closed, and was released on DVD.
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