Juneau-Douglas High School senior Alex Swanston had never acted in a high school play before, but when he read "The Man Who Came To Dinner" last spring in Bethany Bereman's acting class, he was encouraged to try out for the lead, Sheridan Whiteside.
Then came the hard part - understanding Whiteside and the real-life radio broadcaster he was written for: the irascible literary critic Alexander Woolcott.
"I saw a picture of (Woolcott), and I heard a broadcast he had done, and that really helped me with my speech and the way I carry myself onstage," Swanston said. "You see an underlying soft side of him, but for the most part he keeps it straightlaced and pretty concrete."
For the JDHS cast of 25, the true challenge of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's play has been understanding the back story.
Kaufman and Hart were the darlings of Broadway in the 1930s and 1940s. Their scripts were usually farcical lampoons of Hollywood and human nature more than commentaries on current events. The dialogue is filled with inside jokes that were relevant 65 years ago. And the characters themselves are based on real people. Lorraine (Hannah Atadero) is styled after actress and singer Gertrude Lawrence. Banjo (C.J. Keys) is an adaptation of Harpo Marx.
"The Man Who Came To Dinner" plays at 7 p.m. Dec. 5, 6 and 12, and at 2 and 7 p.m. Dec. 13, at the JDHS auditorium.
"The time period is 1939; Europe is at war, but there's no mention of any political unrest," said director Bereman, who's writing her thesis on the play. "Kaufman and Hart were quite concerned about what was happening. But they were writing to help people escape from that.
"We tried to make as many modern parallels as we could," she said. "It's all about language. People then spoke very articulately. Sheridan Whiteside was pretty sharp with a jab, he had a great wit. For the kids to get that was tricky. We had to modernize that to, 'How would you say this today?' "
Like "You Can Take It With You," another famous Kaufman and Hart play, "The Man Who Came To Dinner" is filled with props, gags, witty rejoinders and all-out chaos.
"The scenes that are the most hilarious are the ones that are the most jumbled, with many things going on at once," actor Hannah Atadero said. "There's big actions and big characters, and to have that timing right, and to have lines overlapping and lines still being heard over the screaming and the craziness is difficult."
"The Man Who Came To Dinner" is set in an Ohio town in 1939. Sheridan Whiteside, based on Woolcott, has broken his hip and is stuck at the home of Mr. Stanley (Brock Weller). Kaufman and Hart wrote the play for Woolcott.
"Alexander Woolcott was not nice," Bereman said. "The story was based on an experience Moss Hart had with him, when Woolcott stayed with him and bossed the servants around, didn't like the food, complained about his room and spent three days making everything a living hell."
Woolcott takes over the Stanley house, accumulating gifts and making a general nuisance of himself. He decides to leave, but his secretary, Maggie (Margaret Shorey), falls for Bert Jefferson (Josh Laramie), a young newspaper reporter. Maggie tries to quit. Woolcott wants her to stay, and lures Lorraine (Hannah Atadero) to woo Jefferson. Of course, the scheme backfires and high jinks ensue.
"The play evolves and changes, but Stanley stays exactly the same for the entire play and that's important to the continuity of the entire circle," said Weller, a senior and a JDHS drama veteran.
"I'd say this was harder than any of the other plays I've been in," he said. "It was new ground, and I had to explore who I could become. All I had to go on was I'm from a small town in Ohio, I don't like labor unions, and I really don't like what Whiteside represents, which is the changing face of America."
All of the characters in the play are irrelevant and larger than life. That was typical of Kaufman and Hart.
"The farces end happily," wrote Jeffrey Mason in "Wisecracks: The Farces of George S. Kaufman," "but they seldom offer genuine answers to real-world problems."
"They bring out people in their everyday life," Shorey said. "I thought Maggie was going to be uptight, but she's actually really sarcastic and witty and fun to play. She has a lot of great comebacks and a lot of great things to say."
"I'm just a rigid, stuck-up nurse - they stay the same throughout time," said Becca Gaguine, who plays Nurse Preen. "She's really difficult for me. I'm really crazy, outgoing and I walk really loopy. She's straight and she pronounces everything. She's so surprised whenever Whiteside insults her."
Lorraine - Hannah Atadero; Harriet - Micaela Bauer; Dr. Bradley - Tyler Birk; John - Craig Douglas; Sarah - Cecile Cretin; Mrs. Stanley - Taimhyr Ensor-Estes; Nurse Preen - Becca Gaguine; Prison guard/plainclothesman - Jason Ginter; Sandy - Seneca Harper; Mrs. Dexter/Expressman - Patty Kalbrener; Mrs. McChucheon - Christy Keller; Bert Jefferson - Josh Laramie; Beverly/Prisoner - Justin McCown; Prof. Mertz - Gunnar Miller; Maggie - Margaret Shorey; Whiteside - Alex Swanston; June - Lexy Wagoner; Mr. Stanley - Brock Weller; Richard - Clay Wertheimer; Banjo/Prisoner - C.J. Keys; Expressman - Mac Oliver; Technician - Pat Kohan; Convict/Deputy - Justin Behrends; Technician - Chad Guertin; Deputy - Kyle Shaw.
Stage Manager - Coryjean Whittemore; Directors assistant - Lauren Brooks; Lighting design - Emily Hemenway; Costume - Sophie Lager; Props - Erika Rothchild; Costume - Electra Gardinier; Props - Louisa Bruschi; Costume - Rose Stanley; Sound design - Chris Denton.
Director - Bethany Bereman; Technical director - Lucus Hoiland; Hair and makeup - Heather Sincic; Set designer - Mike Mathews; Costume shop mistress - Andrea Trincado; Lighting design - Toby Clark; Costume designer - Natalee Rothaus; Props queen - J. Althea.