When Alexander Woollcott was asked by a Time magazine reporter for his opinion of The Man Who Came to Dinner, he snapped, “I only review plays for money.” While he eventually brought a lawsuit for plagiarism against George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart for the use of him as their eponymous, unwelcome guest, Woollcott later toured in the role of the venomous Sheridan Whiteside, a part that was originally tailored expressly for him and at his own insistence. (It made a star of Monty Woolley.) Playwright Moss Hart’s defense was a minor classic of evasion: he claimed that he and George S. Kaufman wrote “Woollcott as the public knew him” when, as Steven Bach points out in his Hart biography Dazzler, “Woollcott-as-the-public-didn’t-know-him was the whole delicious point.”

Sixty-one years later, a sumptuous new production of The Man Who Came to Dinner opened in New York, and its pleasures were restricted neither to the delicious conniving of Nathan Lane in the central role nor the endearing wanness of Harriet Harris* as Whiteside’s long-suffering secretary Maggie Cutler. It revealed for a new generation of theatergoers three essential truths, two encouraging, the third a source of rue: First, that it is Kaufman and Hart’s masterpiece, arguably the funniest American play ever written, and one of the most literate comedies of the 20th century. Second, that the long-derided one-set three-act form can, with breakneck staging and inspired playing, be made as legitimate now as it was in the 1930s and as popular. And third, that the craft of making quicksilver stage farce is (in this country at least, Larry Gelbart and the brilliant loons behind the “Frasier” television series notwithstanding) as dead as Woollcott’s memory.

Celebrity is what The Man Who Came to Dinner is really about, a thing Moss Hart himself delighted in. Along with Woollcott, the play includes a brittle, libelously accurate Noel Coward parody (Whiteside even calls him, as Woollcott did Coward, “Destiny’s Tot”); a lampoon of Coward’s prima-donna pal Gertrude Lawrence as a man-hungry snake; a re-christened Harpo Marx in the form of the nurse-chasing Banjo, whose siblings include brothers called “Wacko” and “Sloppo”; a Teutonic professor modeled on Albert Einstein; and enough dropped names to satisfy a covey of social-climbers. The authors never ridicule Whiteside’s mania for collecting the exotic I suspect it’s what they most admired about him.

We have just received, courtesy of the Towne Players of Garner, the first of two Triangle productions of this comic perennial. (Due to a geographical quirk on the part of its licensing agent, which doesn’t seem to know how close Garner is to Raleigh, a second edition opens June 10 at University Theatre at N.C. State.) Under Beth Honeycutt’s hell-for-leather direction, and despite a few cuts in the material, The Man Who Came to Dinner (April 16-24 at The Garner Historic Auditorium) proves as merrily vicious and as happily indestructible as ever.

For the most part, the play’s major roles are exceptionally well cast. While I think more might be done with the part (and has been), David Wright manages the not-inconsiderable feat of giving us a Whiteside as sentimental and Woollcott was notoriously mawkish as he is deliriously nasty. Despite his bantamweight physical presence (Whiteside is described, much as Woollcott himself, as “Falstaffian”), Wright makes a meal of the character’s delight in his own offensiveness and locates Whiteside’s nascent tenderness without making it sticky, except when required to, as with Whiteside’s long paean to his favored charity or his excruciatingly pious Christmas Eve radio broadcast.

Meg Dietrich is a Maggie to dote on. She gets the character’s mix of exasperated loyalty, resigned bemusement, and penetrating wit exactly right, as she does with Maggie’s giddy excitement over finding romantic passion at last her transports of love are as genuine as the fury with which she faces her employer’s duplicity. She gives as good as she gets, and that’s more than plenty. Beth Honeycutt’s performance as that oversexed harpy Lorraine Sheldon is as droll as her direction, and Greg Flowers is uncommonly real (if occasionally a bit under-enunciated) as Maggie’s paramour Bert Jefferson.

Most of the smaller roles are done to a turn as well (although the delivery man should watch his regionalisms; as an Ohio native I can attest that Buckeyes do not pronounce the name of a soft drink as “Co-Cola”). As the unctuous physician Dr. Bradley, Tim Upchurch unleashes a riotous, whinnying impersonation of “The Great Gildersleeve”; Tim Weist sports not only a head of Einsteinian hair with accent to match but a witty pair of lederhosen; as Mrs. Stanley, the small-town matron bearing up under an onslaught of pitiless barbs, cockroach colonies, misplaced octopi, and a library full of penguins, Kelly Stansell starts things off in high style, giggling hysterically over what she initially thinks is her “luck” in snagging Whiteside for an extended visit; and as the besieged nurse Miss Preen (a role that made a fixture of the late Mary Wickes), Sharon Pearce makes patience less a virtue than something akin to the miraculous. While Rob Smith is at times an over-the-top Banjo, he’s at least fully-strung and slips in some inspired bits, such as Harpo’s old lifted-leg routine.

Holmes Morrison is a bit out of his depth as the Coward knock-off Beverly Carlton, but he’s a genial, engaging presence. Michael Armstrong and Maggie Cochran are likeable as Richard and June, the young siblings of the house; and Rusty Sutton blusters with the best of them as their reactionary war-horse of a father. (He also sports a hilariously accurate battle-scar on his forehead in Act Two.) And Carlene Cearley is an appropriately and blithely ethereal presence as the enigmatic sister who ultimately provides Whiteside his most effective gambit.

Scott Honeycutt has done his usual marvels with the cramped Historic Auditorium stage, re-creating the bourgeois trappings of the Stanley’s overly-ornate living room with double doors that lead to the unseen library, a staircase to the rooms above, and the agreeable suggestions of a vestibule and kitchen off-stage. The color scheme is another matter: the forest green accents are perfect, but the burnt-orange walls clash with just about everything (and everyone) on the stage.

Before commenting on the costumes, a disclosure: the designer, David Serxner, is my beloved friend. But since my colleague here at Robert’s Reviews nominated him for a costume award last winter, bias is not the primary reason for the following. The costumes here as shrewd and often subtly ingenious, as with Banjo’s ensemble beret, red smoking jacket and matching socks, and two-toned shoes (red on one side, white on the other). Not surprisingly for a period farce, the women come off best: a blue and white patterned midi for young June, a light pink for the gently loopy Harriet Stanley in the first act, nicely contrasted with a black dress (for attending church!) in the third.

The cuts imposed on the script are, generally, mild: Whiteside’s Christmas call from Gertrude Stein, the Cowardish Cole Porter ditty “What Am I To Do?” My only real cavil is with the loss of one of Lorraine’s best lines the one beginning “Don’t argue with me, you French bitch.” I recognize that the Towne Player audience is often elderly, but I grew up in Garner. We used those words. I suspect they’re still uttered. Why are audiences so easily shocked on hearing in the theater the same language they use every day?

The Towne Players of Garner present The Man Who Came to Dinner Thursday-Saturday, April 22-24, at 8 p.m. in The Garner Historic Auditorium, 742 West Garner Rd., Garner, North Carolina. $8 ($6 students and seniors and $5 for groups of 10 or more). (919) 779-6144. The Towne Players of Garner: http://www.towneplayers.org/. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/production.asp?ID=12627.

*Note: Corrected 4/23/04.