NEW YORK -- If your idea of Christmas holiday fun includes a caustic comedy with a warm, mushy heart, then the Peccadillo Theater Company's amusing revival of a popular, acerbic play from the 1930s will hold great appeal.
Popular wit and radio star Sheridan Whiteside was not always a very nice man, as conceived in 1939 by two masters of theatrical comedy, Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, in their tart comedy "The Man Who Came To Dinner." The antic, insult- laden play about one December in Whiteside's busy life, which opened Sunday night off-Broadway at The Theatre at St. Clement's, is still laugh-out-loud funny, even in its dated references to famous names from the 1930s. A talented cast of 23 creates a wonderfully farcical atmosphere under the sure direction of Dan Wackerman.
Apparently a thinly disguised version of Alexander Woollcott, Whiteside is first seen as a disagreeable, blustery but powerful tyrant, portrayed by that master of the wide-eyed stare and expressive double take, Jim Brochu. Whiteside's wit has made him a huge hit with the public, and he has scads of famous friends all over the world.
But beware if he takes a dislike to you, which is what happens to the staid, upper-class Ohio family on whose icy doorstep he slips while on a lecture tour, and who must then suffer his overwhelmingly insulting, dictatorial presence in their home while he recuperates with an injured hip. His increasingly beleaguered hosts, Mr. and Mrs. Ernest Stanley are played with perfect conventionality and distress by Ira Denmark and Susan Jeffries.
Brochu is expansive and comfortable in the meaty role, confidently roaming about the stage in a wheelchair while bellowing commands and insults. After thoroughly disrupting the Stanley family, forbidding them to talk on their own phone and forcing them to live upstairs out of his way, Sheridan even tries to steal their servants.
His longtime, loyal secretary Maggie is played by Amy Landon as crisply efficient, yet warm and imaginative. Maggie soon falls for a young local man, newspaperman Bert Jefferson (given aw-shucks Midwestern charm by Jay Stratton.) Maggie knows how to handle Sheridan, whom she calls Sherry, and soon enough he's revealing a nicer side to his difficult personality, until he connives to doom Maggie's new relationship so she won't quit her job.
A steady stream of phone calls, peculiar gifts and even more peculiar friends arrives for Sheridan, creating an air of frequent frenzy onstage, including inmates from the local prison that he sponsors, an aquarium filled with cockroaches, and a box of live penguins.
Duplicity mounts in the second act as Sheridan summons his seductive friend, self-centered starlet Lorraine Sheldon (embodied by statuesque Cady Huffman in a bright, very funny, accomplished portrayal) to woo Jefferson. Maggie tries a counterplot of her own, using British friend Beverly Carlton (John Windsor-Cunningham, in a breezy, wonderfully Noel Coward-like impersonation.)
The final guest, who aids Sheridan in his increasingly desperate machinations to undo his own misjudged contrivances is Banjo, a rough-talking pal played by the diminutive, very comical Joseph R. Sicari, who seems to be channeling his inner Jimmy Durante to great effect. By the time a colorful Egyptian sarcophagus is delivered, the theater audience will have enjoyed a very merry, mirthful Christmas week at the Stanley home.