He's The Man Who Came to Dinner

"Fabulous monster." "Spoiled baby." "Improbable...insufferable." "Fat duchess." "A scorpion." "God's big brother." And that's just what his close friends called him. He was all these and more, but most important for posterity, he was the inspiration behind Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman's The Man Who Came to Dinner, the funniest screwball farce in American theater.

In 1939, one of the most recognized names in theater was critic, actor and wit Alexander Woollcott. His distinctive reedy voice was instantly recognizable due to his popular chatty radio show The Town Crier, during which he freely opined on books, films, plays and New York high-life; his byline was ubiquitous in all manner of periodicals. While diva Woollcott's pompous arrogance made him an acquired taste, you had to admire his uncanny showbiz allure. Kaufman and Hart, inspired by the oversize character of Woollcott, created the equally oversize Sheridan Whiteside, and the rest, as they say, is theater history.

Under John Rando's inspired direction, the Alley cast ratchets up the lunacy and produces a pitch-perfect rendition of this classic comedy. It takes a moment or so until we get into the swing of it, for we're not used to the bygone rhythms of Broadway past, or the topical references dropped like so many bonbons that deeply resonated in the late '30s. But everyone instantly gets the premise, even if the name ZaSu Pitts goes miles high over the heads of Gen-Xers.

Whiteside is a horror, dropped smack into the conventional laps of the Stanleys of ­Mesalia, Ohio, where he proceeds to wreck their lives to make his more cushy. On a lecture tour, he has slipped on the ice in front of their home and is now ensconced in a wheelchair on the first floor, bellowing commands like the large, spoiled baby he is. While enamored of his celebrity, the Stanleys are virtual prisoners of his whims. The large cast of characters includes penguins in the study, an octopus in the bathroom, convicted murderers sitting down for lunch in the dining room, as well as Hollywood stars sashaying to his side to sympathize with the great man.

It wasn't the Swiss watchmakers who invented precision timing, it was Kaufman and Hart. The Man Who Came to Dinner is playmaking of a very high order. The role of caustic Whiteside fits James Black like an embroidered smoking jacket. As he fills the stage with stentorian putdowns, Black twinkles with glee, keeping the inherent meanness on slow burn. Filled with eccentrics, the play yearns for hams — demands them, really — and the Alley's resident company obliges. Paul Hope, as the Noël Coward-like Beverly Carlton, positively sparkles; John Tyson, as Harpo Marx-like Banjo, is all manic glitter; Elizabeth Heflin, as Hollywood bombshell Lorraine Sheldon, drips chinchilla and sequins, crossing her legs like a fine pair of scissors; and Anne Quackenbush, as long-suffering nurse Miss Preen, gives a whole new meaning to deadpan.

This sparkler-infused comedy has lit up the American theater sky for decades, and it's performed at the Alley with love and admiration. Woollcott gets redemption, not comeuppance.

There Will Be Blood in Marie

In Marie, Houston Ballet Artistic Director Stanton Welch's full-length ballet based on the life of Marie Antoinette, the gorgeous opulence of the French court is sharply contrasted with the rags of the peasant mob (the sets and costumes, by London-based designer Kandis Cook, are pure eye candy). And as the poor folk are starving, those darn royals are partying like CEOs with million-dollar bonuses.

The audience will definitely draw parallels between France at the time of the French Revolution and the present-day economic meltdown. Wall Street might want to pay attention to the ending here.

Marie, which opened last Thursday, marries storytelling with Welch's contemporary movement to create an enjoyable evening of theater. He's taken a complicated slice of history and a complex woman and boiled them down into three fast-paced acts. And while he doesn't answer the question of whether or not Marie was a fashionista spendthrift or just a political pawn caught up in shifting times, he does give us a glimpse into a bygone era with imaginative staging, breakaway sets and blood. Not that there are buckets of it, but with the blood-soaked kerchief of the dying king and a gruesome beheading in Act II, there is certainly more gore than you'll see at Swan Lake.

Welch outdoes himself in the second act as the court frolics at the Trianon Palace. There's a great ensemble dance as they leap and pound a feast-laden table, swill champagne and get an occasional pie in the face. Through it all, the hapless Duc d'Orleans tries to get Marie's ear. You can almost hear him whispering to her: "The peasants are starving, they're angry, the government is throwing away money, and R. Allen Stanford's a crook." But alas, she doesn't listen until the angry mob arrives to spoil the festivities. In a fascinatingly creepy scene à la Thriller, the dark-eyed, ragged group stomps in, tears the royal family apart and literally rips the head off one of Marie's confidantes, holding up the bloody trophy.

Melody Herrera, the opening night Marie, shows not only her sublime dancing but also some serious acting chops, moving from a sweet Austrian princess to a crazed party girl and finally a subdued hostage. Amy Foote relishes the role of the vile Comtesse Du Barry, and Ian Casady is a blissfully ignorant Louis XVI. And Maestro Ermanno Florio waves a magical baton, conducting a wonderful score he pieced together from Dmitri Shostakovich's music. MARENE GUSTIN

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover