The story goes that “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” which opens tonight at the Ephrata Performing Arts Center, came into being when Moss Hart got an unexpected weekend visit from critic and commentator Alexander Woollcott at his country home in Bucks County.
Woollcott was a horrible guest, complaining about everything.
Hart told his writing partner, George S. Kaufman, about the visit and joked about how awful it would have been if Woollcott had broken his leg and had to stay there longer.
Kaufman looked at Hart and the two instantly realized they had a comedy on their hands.
In the play, Sheridan Whiteside is a well known radio personality — based on Woollcott — who has come to Mesalia, Ohio, for a lecture right before Christmas. He’s come to the house of Mr. and Mrs. Ernest Stanley for dinner as a favor to his agent.
But before he even gets inside the house, he slips on ice and fractures his hip, turning into the nightmare guest who never leaves.
“He totally ruins their lives,” says Ed Fernandez, who is playing Sheridan Whiteside.
“It’s really a play about the fun of celebrity, of people who don’t play by the rules,” Fernandez says.
In a wheelchair and confined to the house for a month, Whiteside insults his hosts, encourages their children to do things their parents would never approve of, runs up huge phone bills, invites his odd lot of “celebrity” friends over and monopolizes the household staff for his own petty needs.
“He’s a baby,” Fernandez says. “But I think he’s smart and loves talent. He admires artistry. He’s extremely well read and kind of brilliant.”
But, Fernandez adds, “he insults people because he can. He isn’t restrained to bourgeois rules.”
Kristie Ohlinger plays Maggie Cutler, Whiteside’s secretary and best friend.
“She’s a type A personality, and she totally runs his life,” Ohlinger says. “I think she’s been super happy in her life with him.”
But Maggie falls for local newspaper editor Bert Jefferson, who is also a playwright. This threatens Whiteside, who will go to any means to keep the two from getting together.
Is Maggie falling into a bourgeois trap herself?
“No, I don’t think she’s giving up. She’s happy, and everyone loves her,” Ohlinger says. “Besides, (she and Bert) are going places. He’s written a brilliant play, and she’s going to move him to New York and get that play produced.”
Whiteside can’t imagine his life without her.
“It’s a platonic love story,” Fernandez says.
Of course, his nasty side comes out. He comes up with a plan to break up Maggie and Bert by bringing the sexy Lorraine Sheldon to town to read Bert’s play and seduce him.
The play is a whirlwind of crazy, often high-strung characters and ridiculous behavior and situations, involving such things as glass-encased cockroaches and penguins.
“Sometimes I am the straight man watching all these crazy people perform,” Fernandez says.
“The Man Who Came to Dinner” has been a hit ever since it was first produced in 1939.
Fernandez notes it is still one of the most popular plays produced across the country.
Some of the name dropping may be a little unfamiliar and dated, but both Fernandez and Ohlinger say the repartee and situations are quite funny.
“I can’t stop laughing in rehearsals,” Ohlinger says.
“Comedy is tough, and rehearsing without an audience makes you wonder if the laughs will register,” Fernandez says.
“There’s a lot of precision involved with comic timing,” Ohlinger says. “You’ve got to keep up the pace and the speed of it, or it will just sit there.”
EPAC did the show in 2000, but Fernandez was eager to reprise the role and bring a group of EPAC regulars on board.
“We all have this history, and it’s really fun working together,” he says. “Some of us have known each other for 20 or 25 years. The camaraderie is great.”¶