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A CurtainUp Review
Dinner at Eight
The trouble with a shelter is that in a storm it sometimes falls down around your ears
--- Lucy Talbot, giving voice to the storm of the great Depression that threaten to turn the luxurious world of the people in Kaufman and Ferber's tragi-comedy into a house of cards.
Christine Ebersole
Christine Ebersole
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
In a nostalgic essay about high tea at the Palm Court of the Plaza Hotel, ("A Trip Back in Time",The New York Times, 12/22/02), memoirist Laura Cunningham refers to her subject as "a castle of conspicuous consumption" which she at age ten proclaimed to be "swanky." Right she is. But for the ultimate trip back to swanky and conspicuous consumption, I suggest that Ms. Cunningham -- and anyone with a taste for 1930s elegance and luxurious living -- head six blocks further uptown to catch Lincoln Center's drop dead revival of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's 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 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

Emily Skinner & Kevin Conway
Emily Skinner & Kevin Conway
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Representing the new money class with apt vulgarity, are Kevin Conway and Emily Skinner as Dan and Kitty Packard. He's an opportunistic tycoon with political ambitions. She's his trophy wife with more cleavage than class. She's also not above a dalliance with everybody's favorite doctor (John Dossett). Joanne Camp, as the doctor's long-suffering wife, convincingly plays the most insightful character, aware not only of her husband's infidelities but, per the quotation at the top of this review, the storm brewing over everyone's lives.

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.

James Rebhorn  & Marian Seldes
James Rebhorn & Marian Seldes
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Marian Seldes, though a last minute replacement for Dorothy Loudon, plays the larger-than-life actress Carlotta Vance as if she'd been rehearsing it for a year, and with her own larger-than-life dazzle and dash. She arrives at her first scene in long-time admirer and friend Oliver Jordan's office in full command of her survivor's instincts so that it comes as no surprise that friendship won't interfere with her selling her stock in Oliver's shipping company. When she later drops in at the Jordan apartment, she dramatically overstates her exhaustion with "I left my hotel this morning a young and lovely woman -- I'm now an old woman.", Her three applause-worthy (and getting) appearances are topped by her final entry with her lap dog sardonically named after the man who made the Italian railroads run on schedule, which allows her to gleefuly deeclare that she and the furry Mussolini are on time.

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
June Moon
Merton of the Movies

Dinner At Eight
Written by George S. Kaufman & Edna Ferber
Directed by Gerald Gutierrez
Cast (alphabetical): Joanne Camp (Lucy Talbot), Rhys Coiro (Eddie, the Bellboy), Kevin Conway (Dan Packard), John Dossett (Dr. J. W. Talbot), Christine Ebersole (Millicent Jordan), Enid Graham (Dora), Joe Grifasi (Max Kane), Byron Jennings (Larry Renault), Simon Jutras (Gustave), Karl Kenzler (Mr. Hatfield), Anne Lange (Miss Alden), Mark Lotito (Ricci) , Charlotte Maier (Tina), Peter Maloney (Joe Stengel), Deborah Mayo (Miss Copenad),Ann McDonough (Hattie Loomis), James Rebhorn (Oliver Jordan), Marian Seldes (Carlotta Vance), Sloane Shelton (Mrs. Wendel), Emily Skinner (Kitty Packard, Samantha Soule (Paula Jordan), David Wohl (Mr. Fitch); Musicians: Julian Gamble, E. Joseph Kamail, Mark La Mura, Philip Le Strange.
Set Design: John Lee Beatty
Costume Design: Catherine Zuber.
Lighting Design: David Weiner
Original Music: Robert Waldman
Sound Design: Aural Fixation
Running time: 2 1/2 hours, with 2 intermissions
Lincoln Center Theatre--Vivian Beaumont, 212/239-6200 11/21/02-1/26/03; opening 12/19/02
Tue at 7pm, Wed - Sat @8PM, Wed & Sat @2PM, Sun @3PM -- $55-$70.

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on performance.
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