It all starts in a very tasteful and domestic living room, in a scene of controlled chaos, punctuated by shouts offstage from a very irate Whiteside. Actors run hither and yon, including a nurse, a butler, a cook, a doctor, and the lady of the house.
We learn from two ladies paying a visit what happened: while doing a speaking tour of the US, the great writer, newspaperman, radio announcer, and general celebrity Sheridan Whiteside slipped and fell on the ice on the doorstep of Earnest and Daisy Stanley's small-town Ohio home. He has already stayed there for some time, but has just been cleared by the doctor to leave his room and move to a wheelchair for the rest of his recuperation.
To say that Whiteside is not a good patient is an understatement. Picture a man normally in complete control of everyone and everything around him, reduced to the status of an invalid. He doesn't take it well. He threatens to sue the Stanleys, heaps abuse on his nurse, and delivers a list of requirements to his hosts that limit them to their upstairs rooms and prevent them from using their phone, as he needs the space and the phone to conduct his own business.
As if that wasn't bad enough, Whiteside gets visits from a string of outlandish characters, from a crazed entomologist to a young up-and-coming diva to — well, it's hard to describe what Banjo is exactly. Let's not forget the gifts he receives for the holidays: an octopus, four penguins, a small city of roaches, and even more and stranger items. Topping all of this, Whiteside meddles in the affairs of his hosts and his long-suffering secretary.
If he were simply insufferable, this play wouldn't be nearly as funny. But we see him at work, talking with the nearly-grown Stanley children, fending off the attentions of a doctor with author ambitions, touching base with all of his Hollywood friends, and taking a personal interest in his favorite charity, a halfway house for convicts. Whiteside is a complicated man, capable of charm as well as arrogance, deep caring as well as callousness.
Dan Martin plays Whiteside with all the drama and professionalism you'd expect of such an experienced actor, turning the old-fashioned wheelchair to which he's limited for most of the play into a mobile throne. Tonya Denmark serves up competence and confidence as Maggie Cutler, Whiteside's long-time capable secretary. She's no pushover, and comes across perfectly as perhaps the only person who can manage Whiteside.
But Cutler is not just some cold professional, and when local newspaperman Burt Jefferson pays a visit to interview Whiteside, she is soon swept off her feet. Kenny Forthun plays the earnest, smooth, and handsome Jefferson, with just enough confidence to show the audience that the character is meant for bigger things than staying in a small town. It makes Cutler's feelings for him more believable.
In fear of losing his secretary, Whiteside summons one of his more colorful friends with the thinly-veiled intent of seducing Jefferson away from Cutler: the sexy actress Lorraine Sheldon. Played pitch perfectly by Jessa Dodds, Sheldon all but gloriously takes over the stage every time she appears. When she and Cutler share the stage, sparks fly behind their well-mannered demeanors.
Mr. Stanley, played by Hood Roberts, is anything but well-mannered. Roberts delivers the perfect performance of a normally genteel man taxed to his limits and beyond by an impossible house guest. Mrs. Stanley, played by Michelle Reeves, is clearly torn between her admiration for her unwilling celebrity house guest and her husband's fury. Reeves perfectly conveys Mrs. Stanley's discomfort at her position every time she's on the stage.
The young adult Stanley children, Richard and June, are capably portrayed by Justin Taubensee and Elizabeth Kivelowitz, respectively. Whiteside adds to the general chaos by encouraging them to pursue their dreams. In both cases, these require running away: to be a photographer and see the world in Richard's case, and to elope with the union organizer in her father's factory in June's case. You can imagine Mr. Stanley's reaction when he finds his children missing, and discovers why.
Before I wrap up this review, a word must be said about the stream of characters that appear briefly on stage, yet leave their mark on the plot. Carol Flynn plays the ever-so-slightly odd Harriet Stanley, Ernest's sister, with poise and grace. George Perez himself (yes, the comic book artist) does a delightful turn as Professor Metz, the crazed entomologist who gifts Whiteside with a roach city. Irene Gallin plays the much-abused nurse, Miss Preen, with fortitude and the kind of contained ire one would expect. David Ricklick hams it up nicely as the simply fabulous actor Bevery Carlton.
Speaking of ham though, no one delivers it better than William McCoy, playing the part of Banjo. In the 1942 movie version of the play, Banjo was played by Jimmy Durante, and modeled on Harpo Marx. He's not silent in this piece, of course, but Banjo uses Harpo's physical humor to great advantage, and McCoy's impressive talent for this kind of humor shines through.
As for the show's convoluted plot, and how Whiteside avoids getting thrown out on his ear, you'll have to see it yourself to find out. By all means, do so. You will not be disappointed.
The Moonlight Players will be performing "The Man Who Came to Dinner" through November 24, every Friday and Saturday at 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets cost $15 for adults, $12 for students. The Moonlight Players Warehouse Theater is located at 732 Montrose Street in Historic Downtown Clermont. For reservations, call 352-319-1116. You can also visit the Moonlight Players' website at www.moonlightplayers.com/.