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Dinner at Eight
Positioned way upstage and echoing the far away era you're entering is a dinner table set for ten, a small party by hostess Millicent Jordan's (Christine Ebersole) standards. It's a breathtaking fantasy of silvery white, with a snowy, Christmas tree like centerpiece awaiting its human and culinary pièces d'résistance -- two prestigious guests, members of the English aristocracy, and a lobster aspic requiring hours of the Jordan cook's (Sloane Shelton) time.
Actually, the play, which in its day was referred to as Dinner at Ate, focuses on the week leading up to this dinner. Nobody actually sits down at that elaborately set table which slides out of view to make way for seven equally succulent sets by the theatrical impresario of to die for decor, John Lee Beatty. Those sets, which glide forward and backward as well as up and down, are the real pièces d'résistance of this revival.
Spectacularly impressive as these Beattyscapes are, there's much pleasure to be derived from seeing twenty-eight actors on stage, all giving splendid performances and dressed with personality and period defining style by Catherine Zuber. It's also interesting to see that Kaufman and Ferber's script, though more than mildly rusty and lacking in consistently scintillating dialogue, manages to be more than a little relevant to our times.
The maze of subplots complicating the week-long dinner party plans that are the play's central arc involves upstairs and downstairs members of the Jordan domain, as well as the assorted invitees. These people's life styles are on the verge of being toppled by the fallout of the Great Depression, just as the problems of the dot.com/go-go day economy has overhung our futures with the sort of ambiguity that marks the final scene of Dinner at Eight. Even the painstakingly assembled lobster aspic that's toppled by the below stairs war between Gustave, the butler (Simon Jutras), and Ricci, the chauffeur (Mark Lotito), over the affections of Dora, the maid (Enid Graham} can now be seen as more than a funny bit of business; Jello, after all, spelled the end of the aspic's "smart and dressy" status as much as the Depression ended or at least downsized the servant class.
Since both Kaufman and Ferber were members of the wise-cracking Algonquin Roundtable and their collaborative work was more intent on providing their characters one liners than in-depth characterizations, Dinner at Eight is basically a series of cameos to allow each actor to sparkle and amuse. Opening as it did at the height of the Depression, audiences probably wouldn't have wanted the authors to let the balance of their play tilt towards its more tragic elements or to indulge in any really pertinent social commentary. With this revival opening during the holidays and at a time when escapism is understandably popular, Gerald Gutierrez has followed suit by directing with a deep bow to its nostalgic flavor and opulence.
With a cast this large, even the key players don't really lead. Instead they have star turns.
Christine Ebersole is delectably on the mark as the chirpy, one-track minded hostess. Her several times repeated remark about going to a play after dinner gets a laugh each time, not because it would be impossible since the dinner and curtain times are the same, but because of her sly putdown about nothing good being available. Her most hilarious scene is a tantrum prompted by the fact that her dinner party has lost both its star guests and the lobster aspic. James Rebhorn has a more sensitive role as her shipping magnate husband who tries to spare her from the truth about the state of his heart and his business
Byron Jennings is less hammy but more pitiful than his movie counterpart, John Barrymore, in the role of the has-been alcoholic actor with whom the Jordan's daughter Paula (Samantha Soule) loves more than her fiance. The scene in which his agent (Joe Grifasi) finally blows up and tells him off ("You're a corpse but you don't know it") is one of the more powerful of the serious moments.
When Dinner at Eight opened on Broadway its rotating set was a big innovation. A star-studded movie version followed but the large cast and multiple sets made revivals prohibitively costly for most theaters. Even the Williamstown Theatre Festival, which often puts on large cast revivals (they did one of The Royal Family which starred Marian Seldes in 1996), would not have the resources to match this 7-set extravaganza. With that in mind, park your grumbles about money spent that might have supported several new plays, and give yourself a holiday treat to take in two and a half hours of actor power and stagecraft pizazz you're not like to see again any time soon.
One of CurtainUp's earliest reviews, The Royal Family
Julie Gilbert, who has recently completed a musical version of Dinner at Eight also has written an very readable and informative biography of her great-aunt which was reviewed at CurtainUp' and is available in our book store: Edna Ferber and Her Circle.
Other plays by George S. Kaufman:
The Butter and Egg Man (Atlantic Theater)
The Butter and Egg Man (Cocteau
Beggar On Horseback
Once In a Lifetime
As Thousands Cheer
Merton of the Movies
Books Make Great Gifts
At This Theater
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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