The Art of Dining

When the hostess in Dinner at Eight says she's planning to bring her dinner guests to the theater afterward, she isn't talking about a late movie. She means that after an hour or two at table, they'll head west to Broadway and troop in late for the climax of some chic, languidly played comedy or drama, disregarding the disruption their arrival will cause and arrogantly assuming their ability to comprehend what's happening onstage despite having missed the bulk of it. If this doesn't tell you everything about the upper-class attitudes that had just begun to crumble in 1932, then you will find Lincoln Center Theater's revival of Dinner at Eight educational as well as pleasurable.

Coming late to the theater was important to "the carriage trade," as the rich were still called back then; it showed the theater who was boss. Power, over oneself and one's inferiors, a central theme of their daily life, is one of the themes around which Kaufman and Ferber built their grand-scale panorama of New York society at the nadir of the stock market crash. Who can walk in on you unannounced; who gets the flattery and who gets the barbs; whom you don't tell your troubles to—these are the play's quotidian substance, thick with complex niceties and nuances. Like Scott Fitzgerald's dream of dramatizing Emily Post, the multiple plots revolve around the elegant Mrs. Jordan's desire to assemble a perfect dinner party for a visiting Lord and Lady. These aristos are apparently a dreary pair, but "They entertained us in London," and the Jordans' lofty social status carries a perpetual sense of noblesse oblige. Dr. and Mrs. Talbot must be asked because the Talbots and the Jordans always owe each other a dinner. The coarse, nouveau-riche Packards, though despised, must be asked for business reasons; the "poisonous" retired stage diva Carlotta Vance must come, because "we were in and out of her house at Antibes that summer."

The weird, ritualized abstractness of this onerous mode of potlatch, forever forcing you to entertain people you loathe, is the source of Dinner at Eight's comedy but also of its heroism. Kaufman and Ferber cast their social net wide, and then knew how to pull it tight. Not only must every character have a secret misery, but the miseries must mesh, so that every chance remark presses painfully on somebody else's sore spot. Even down in the servants' hall, all is feigning and betrayal; Mrs. Jordan doesn't have to know what really happened to the lobster aspic. Vicki Baum's Grand Hotel, which as a novel and a play had preceded Dinner at Eight, is often cited as a partial inspiration, but the American work, by focusing on a social ritual rather than a place, gains a girderlike structural strength that its European model lacks. (Jean Renoir seems to have noticed; his Rules of the Game is roughly Dinner at Eight changed from a meal into a country-house weekend. Possibly he had seen the play in its successful Paris incarnation, adapted by Jacques Deval as Lundi 8 Heures.)

Christine Ebersole in Dinner at Eight: a host of talents
photo: Joan Marcus
Christine Ebersole in Dinner at Eight: a host of talents

Details

Dinner At Eight
By George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber
Vivian Beaumont Theatre
Lincoln Center
212-239-6200

What Didn't Happen
By Christopher Shinn
Playwrights Horizons at the Duke
229 West 42nd Street
212-239-6200

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The combination of the absurdly formal and lavish dinner arrangements with the agony concealed behind the guests' sparkling facades must have stirred a wide spectrum of feelings in the Broadway audiences of 1932-33. The rich are simultaneously ridiculed as uncaring wastrels and idealized as noble sufferers; their glittering ways are glamorized as fantasy for the lower classes, tinged with hints of gossip for the knowing, and wallowed in nakedly as nostalgia for the Crash's nouveau poor. In 2002, with New York's economy strapped to the respirator and most of its traditions either demolished or digitized, Dinner at Eight has a disturbingly vivid ring again. Unexpectedly, it's become what we mean by a classic, its reassuring feel of familiarity coming half from its thorough, old-style craftsmanship and half from the ease with which you could pick out today's versions of its key figures. Doing so, naturally, only enhances the nostalgia.

So, methodically, does Gerald Gutierrez, whose revival stylishly manages to catch the best of the old world while making it seem lively and new. There's no antique hamming or underscoring, nor, mercifully, is there any coarse attempt to update the material or turn the style into TV mumbling. At worst, you could say that Emily Skinner is a little too broadly slapdash for Kitty Packard, the hat-check girl who married rich and now wants to rub elbows with the gentry. But this is more our era's failure than the actress's: the great ladies and the hat-check girls have rubbed elbows for so long now that it's hard to tell the difference. Maybe, too, Byron Jennings seems overly youthful and healthy as the washed-up actor who doesn't come to dinner. We associate this role with John Barrymore, who played it in the glossier movie version, and on whom Kaufman's daughter has just told Times readers the character was based. But Barrymore, in 1932, was at the height of his movie prestige—check out his dazzling work in Counselor-at-Law, newly on DVD. No doubt his legendary carousing and tantrumming enhanced the character, but there were plenty of other sources: the similarly temperamental and boozy John Gilbert, then well into his decline; the gorgeous, dumbly narcissistic Lou Tellegen, who sank from playing opposite Sarah Bernhardt to being a sort of glorified gigolo.

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