Nathan victorious. – American Airlines Theatre, New York City – Review

Nathan victorious. – American Airlines Theatre, New York City – Review – theater review

Don Shewey

It’s time to celebrate when Nathan Lane brings his talents home to Broadway

The Man Who Came to Dinner * Written by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart * Directed by Jerry Zaks * Starring Nathan Lane and Jean Smart * Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre, New York City (through October 8)

“I may vomit!” From the charming first line he speaks onstage in The Man Who Came to Dinner, Nathan Lane tears into the role of Sheridan Whiteside like a meat eater just escaped from a vegetarian cult.

In George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s 1939 classic comedy, Whiteside is a larger-than-life radio personality whose lecture tour of the Midwest turns into a three-week incarceration in the Ohio home of Mr. and Mrs. Stanley, on whose icy front steps he breaks a leg. The setup allows Whiteside to hurl nonstop invective at his hapless hosts and caretakers while conducting his business of world-class name-dropping and social intrigue from the living room of their house.

Even for anyone who knows the play, this revival is fun for days. Director Jerry Zaks reconfirms his mastery of adrenaline-boosted comic staging. He pulls fantastic performances from his large cast: from Harriet Harris as Whiteside’s secretary and Jean Smart as the slutty star he summons for some intermeddling right down to Mary Catherine Wright and William Duell as the nurse and doctor who bear the brunt of Whiteside’s worst abuse.

When the play first opened, audiences knew the real-life models for Whiteside (Alexander Woollcott), the composer-performer Beverly Carlton (Noel Coward), and the Hollywood comedian Banjo (Harpo Marx). Those references may elude us today, but we have our own intelligence, which includes enough gaydar to pick up the traces of homosexuality. Lane’s Whiteside is literally a bitch on wheels who has a soft spot in his heart for paroled convicts and choirboys, and Byron Jennings plays Beverly with a suave narcissism that speaks volumes. In the flashiest cameo Lewis J. Stadlen’s Banjo turns a reference to J. Edgar Hoover into a mincing-fag impersonation. Such was gay pride circa 1939.

The best thing about the show, which will be broadcast live October 7 on PBS, is that it both unleashes and contains every last ounce of Nathan Lane’s prodigious comic shtick, especially his astonishing vocal range. In the past he’s often been too hammy for my tastes, but here he won me over. He’s the first stage star of his generation to cross over to film and TV fame, but he’s still most at home playing to the rafters in a big-time Broadway show.

To find more about Nathan Lane, The Man Who Came to Dinner, and related Internet sites, and to read Lane’s Advocate 199 cover interview, visit www.advocate.com

Shewey is the editor of Out Front: Contemporary Gay and Lesbian Plays (Grove Press).

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