Snow Business

SBCC Invites The Man Who Came to Dinner

by Sara Barbour

The view from in front of SBCC’s West Campus Garvin Theatre is staggering. A bright curve of green lawn drops away to the uninhibited expanse of our beautiful harbor, the blue-green ocean marked only by tiny white masts, while an equally picturesque backdrop of mountains surrounds this glittering beachfront. Nothing says endless summer like this scenic overlook, especially since it is populated almost exclusively by students in shorts and flip-flops. Santa Barbara in July — what better place or time to enjoy some Christmas cheer?

With the well-known and much-loved classic comedy, The Man Who Came to Dinner, Santa Barbara City College Theatre Group is poised to present just such an out-of-season experience, providing summertime theater-goers with some of the spontaneous joy and merriment that ordinarily only emerges in the winter days leading up to December 25. Kaufman and Hart’s classic Broadway hit spins the comic yarn of Sheridan Whiteside, a famously obnoxious critic who gets stranded for the holidays in the previously uneventful home of an ordinary American family, and proceeds to do his utmost to disturb the peace. Whiteside manages to wreak havoc on both the Stanley family’s conservative household and his secretary’s budding romance with a local playwright. The outrageous Whiteside is based on real-life New York critic Alexander Woollcott, a friend of the play’s writers, George Kaufman and Moss Hart. City College’s talented group of actors for this production will be led by James E. Brodhead, who first performed the role of Whiteside at age 17. Director Katie Laris said Brodhead is living and breathing the part, bringing to his rich character an entire “life of experience.”

Laris attributes The Man’s persistent appeal and enduring success to its characters, who range all the way from chastely Middle American to wildly eccentric. Laris speaks with animation of the wide spectrum of oddballs — including a sultry actress and a Harpo Marx look-alike — who cross the stage, however briefly, adding new comedic dimensions and heightening the energy of The Man’s many hectic scenes. One might expect a play crafted in the 1930s to show signs of becoming dated, yet Laris asserted that Kaufman and Hart’s show remains “engaging and smart,” and has been kept young by the sheer variety of faces that have been called to pay court to Whiteside over the years. She says that the show continues to attract millions of playgoers because of its endearing “human connection.”

Indeed, despite the frenetic hilarity lurking around every turn, the play’s emotional center — the relationship between Whiteside and his secretary, Maggie Cutler — deepens as it develops. Startled and genuinely upset at the prospect of losing the long-suffering Maggie to marriage, Whiteside mounts a cunning and self-centered resistance before finally acknowledging the sincerity of her affection for the good-natured Bert Jefferson and seeking to reverse his meddling. It may at times appear otherwise — especially during such uproarious scenes as the one in which a character is shipped off in the case of an ancient Egyptian mummy — but at its heart the play addresses a serious theme: the struggle of a man learning to deal with the painful process of letting go.

Still, audiences for The Man Who Came to Dinner can look forward to an evening of pure Christmas-in-July-style fun. This, the final production in SBCC’s illustrious 2005-06 season, will elicit more than a few laughs and leave even the most resistant among us fighting mightily to suppress a grin. Sporting everything from cockroaches to choirboys, The Man Who Came to Dinner is classic Broadway comedy at its best, portrayed with skill by actors and actresses who are clearly enjoying the rollicking absurdity of what they are doing. After all, whatever the respective merits of tragedy and light drama may be, as Laris said, there’s “just nothing like being in a comedy.”

4-1-1 SBCC Theatre Group’s production of The Man Who Came to Dinner runs July 14-29, at Garvin Theatre. Call 965-5935.

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