Providence Players of Fairfax has opened a promising production of an old chestnut, "The Man Who Came to Dinner," the George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart comedy. This marks Providence's debut in a new home in the Falls Church area, where the troupe hopes to attract wider audiences and perform more technically demanding plays.
Despite having only two weeks' access to the new James Lee Community Center theater, the group had technical operations running smoothly on opening night. The Players' performance, while not brilliant, was competent -- suggesting that this theater company could eventually be one of the area's more accomplished local theater groups, perhaps only needing more experienced actors to discover it.
In "The Man Who Came to Dinner," a Pulitzer Prize-winning screwball farce from 1938, members of a prosperous small-town family in Ohio find their Christmas holiday upended when a visiting celebrity injures himself on their icy front doorstep and has to recuperate in their home. Their unintended and demanding guest is Sheridan Whiteside, a world-renowned radio broadcaster, writer and raconteur, friend to the mighty as well as the flighty.
The overbearing Whiteside, played by Matt Ames, soon takes over the household, meddling in everyone's lives. Confined to a wheelchair, Whiteside has his world, that of a globe-hopping luminary, come to him. International celebrities, convicts, a container of cockroaches, penguins and an Egyptian mummy's sarcophagus soon appear.
At the play's heart is the bickering relationship between Whiteside and his secretary, Maggie Cutler, played by Barbara Gertzog. Maggie is a stock 1930s character, the wise-cracking, no-nonsense career gal. Maggie is there to deflate and humanize Whiteside, and Gertzog strikes the perfect note of engaging earnestness.
But Ames fails to create a larger than life, multi-faceted character. His Whiteside is merely petulant instead of a combustible mix of pomposity, sophistication and wit. And Ames's reedy voice does not match the frequently referred-to mellifluous tones of the master broadcaster.
While many in the large supporting cast turn in technically competent but undistinguished performances, several actors do go nicely over the top with their farcical roles, particularly Craig Geoffrion, who seemingly continues playing the same role he successfully performed in the McLean Theatre Alliance's recently closed and otherwise ill-fated production of "Anything Goes."
There he was effete Englishman Evelyn Oakleigh. This time, the effete Englishman he plays is named Beverly Carlton. (English parents must have lost the book listing male baby names for a while there early in the last century.)
It's also fun to watch Donna Naybor layering on unexpected edginess to the role of glamorous but aging film femme fatale Lorraine Sheldon, and rubber-faced Laurie Hinners earning laughs as Miss Preen, a nurse who is continually shocked by Whiteside's antics.
Kaufman and Hart's dialogue veers between genial humor and clever cynicism, a challenge for director Tina Thronson and her mostly hometown cast, who struggle with uneven, limp pacing for much of the first act. But momentum begins building, and by Act 3, mild audience chuckles were replaced by hearty laughs.
The upper-middle-class living room set, designed by Thronson and John Coscia, is quite attractive. Solid and multidimensional, it does seem just a bit crammed onto the Lee Center's stage, which is smaller than one might expect for a theater seating 250.
Smitty Connolly's costumes for the women are stylish, sumptuous examples of Depression-era glamour, although the men, as happens frequently, seem largely left to their own closets.
The Providence Players has the basics down pretty well. Now the group needs to grow beyond that and find a unique voice that consistently projects dimensions not reliant merely on reciting dialogue.
"The Man Who Came to Dinner" continues through June 19 at the James Lee Community Center Theater, 2855 Annandale Rd., Falls Church. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with a 2 p.m. matinee Sunday. For information or tickets, call 703-425-6872 or visit www.providenceplayers.org.