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A CurtainUp Review

I know that you all hate me. . . . But I would like you all to know that you are still my children and you will always be in my heart --- Helge

Larry Brygman & Ali McGraw
Larry Bryggman & Ali McGraw
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Something is clearly rotten in the Denmark estate presided over by wealthy hotelier Helge. The arrival of the patriarch's children -- Christian, Michael and Helene -- to celebrate his sixtieth birthday should be a happy occasion. But there's a missing child, Christian's twin sister Linda, whose funeral was the most recent occasion for a family gathering. Though Festen doesn't feature a slew of corpses like Hamlet, it's Linda's self-inflicted death and its long smoldering cause that aptly links the dysfunctional royals of Elsinore and the hotel mogul's family.

David Eldridge's play is a stage adaptation of the groundbreaking 1998 Dogme film entitled Celebration which is the English definition of its title, Festen. Besides its very specific directing style (Click the link to Lizzie Loveridge's London review at the end of this review for more details about Dogme as well as Festen's plot) and the Hamlet-like situation, the film evoked memories of Ingmar Bergman's many abstract explorations of dysfunctional families, often using family gatherings to set off the emotional fireworks.

Eldridge's script and Rufus Norris's uniquely stylized direction make the most of the film's affinity for live presentation. Norris is lucky to be able to make his original creative team part of the play's transfer from its award-winning London run to Broadway.

The opening image is of a small child and her father (played by Helge's son Michael and his young daughter) frolicking on Ian MacNeil's barren black set. Paul Arditti craftily establishes an eerie sense of foreboding by mixing the sound of running water and the child's singing abruptly ending laughter That scene reenforces the Hamlet comparison and makes the collapse of this family's sham solidarity inevitable.

Having the brothers and sisters settle into their bedrooms on a single bed that rises from the floor so that three separate bedroom scenes are played simultaneously is a stunningly effective directorial device to fill us in on the sibling dynamic provide the audience with background information. The long dining room table that rolls forward and backward seamlessly provides an equally impressive Last Supper sort of setting for the scenes showing the family's well-mannered but strangely tense and conversationless eating and drinking which is interrupted only by the customary clinking glass by someone about to make a toasts, which turn increasingly menacing.

The first toast by Helge's loyal managing director Helmut is a blandly amusing set-up for Christian's bombshell toast which is delivered in a playful Lady-or-the-Tiger fashion. The wine-induced fantastical detours with everyone singing offensively racist nursery rhymes and dancing all around the house. This false gaiety serves to intensify the accusing eldest son's isolation amidst the group's desperate attempt to continue its pattern of denying the rot eating away at its core.

So far so good. But, as things are not well in this Danish idyll, something about this American production doesn't make Festen quite the cause for celebration it should be for theatergoers who have bought tickets based on its highly touted London credentials. As with Michael Frayn's Democracy, the Broadway Festen has assembled some terrific actors. Most of the performances are quite good, but Norris hasn't been able to nudge really riveting performances from all. Some of the acting problems keep the tension from mounting and making this dinner party hellishly memorable.

The really major casting error is Ali McGraw who makes her Broadway debut as the aloof monster mother Else. McGraw, while still attractive, lacks the called for grandeur. She doesn't flub the few lines she has, but when she speaks its with poor projection of either voice or emotion.

Michael Hayden brings the right degree of pained intensity to the role of the quiet, almost passive, eldest son who at first seems to be the favorite, the one who has followed in the father's professional footsteps as a hotel magnate in his own right. Larry Bryggman, an actor who can always be relied on to do sad and funny, nice and not so nice, keeps Helge enigmatic enough to avoid coming off as a stock villain -- and yet, there are times when he doesn't seem totally at home inside this complex character's skin.

Jeremy Sisto and Juliana Margulies are okay as the Michael and the Helene, but neither manages to give us an understanding of just how deeply their father's abuse of their twin brother and sister affected them. Of the minor characters, Christopher Evan Welch as Helmut who's too happy to have risen to his position as managing director and David Patrick Kelly's non-sequitur spouting Poul inject the humor that was an important part of the Dogme vision for this story. The downstairs contingent of this house of gloomy household (Stephen Kunken, Diane Davis and C.J. Wilson) at times come off better than their masters. Keith Davis as Helene's black boyfriend Gbatokay (apparently the latest of numerous unconventional lovers) has too much of a walk-on part to add anything to the disturbing racial subtext of the already mentioned nursery rhymes.

Festen never fails to hold one's attention, but don't expect this to be as moving as Jane Smiley's novel A Thousand Acres which used Shakespeare's King Lear to tell a similar tale. And with all due respect to the actors, Festen's stars are the designers. Like Lizzie Loveridge, I saw Festen without having seen the Dogme film. As it did her, this production has prompted me to put seeing the DVD of it at the top of my things to do and see list. Here is the link to Festen in London.

Closing 5/20/06 after 20 previews and 49 regular performances.
Playwright: David Eldrige, based on the Dogme film Celebration by Thomas Vinterberg, Mogens Rukov and Bo hr Hansen
Directed by Rufus Norris
Cast: Larry Bryggman (Helge), Michael Hayden (Christian), Ali MacGraw (Else), Julianna Margulie (Helene), Jeremy Sisto (Michael); also John Carger (Grandfather), Diane Davis (Pia), Keith Davis (Gbatokay), David Patrick Kelly (Poul), Stephen Kunken (Lars), Carrie Preston (Mette), Christopher Evan Welch (Helmut) C.J. Wilson (Kim), Meredith Lipson and Ryan Simpkins (alternating as Little Girl).
Designer: Ian MacNeil
Costume Design: Joan Wadge
Lighting Designer: Jean Kalman
Sound: Paul Arditti
Music: Orlando Gough
Running time: 1 hour and 45 minutes with one intermission.
Music Box, 239 W. 45th St 212/239-6200
From3/23/06; opening 4/19/06.
Mondays at 8 PM, Tuesdays at 7 PM, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 PM, with matinees on Wednesdays & Saturdays at 2 PM.
Tickets: $95-$75-$30.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 4/07/06 press performance
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