The Art of Dining

Discussing any aspect of Dinner at Eight inevitably rakes up mounds of cultural history. Unlike the daintier meal served in its offstage dining room as the curtain falls, the script is a hearty stew for common folk, rich with flavorsome chunks of beefy melodrama in a spicy comic sauce. Gutierrez dishes it up festively, in generous portions of a kind the theater rarely offers these days, despite its vertiginous ticket prices. The seemingly endless acreage of John Lee Beatty's sets, starting with a Platonic vision of the dinner table we never see occupied, has both grace and point, as does the muted flamboyance of Catherine Zuber's subtly characterized costumes. Large casts in old plays often look like a pickup troupe, or background for a few carefully groomed star turns; this one, in contrast, functions as an ensemble, with little grandstanding, but with each performance big enough and full enough to grip you when the time comes. Christine Ebersole, as the crisis-plagued hostess, gets the appropriate central focus, her nonstop verbal efficiency and her big demonic tantrum leaving the audience breathless. But you don't need Ebersole's opportunities: Listen to Ann McDonough's wry tone of perpetual disappointment, or see Joanne Camp, overhearing her adulterous spouse on the phone, catch the house with one sweep of her eyes, or watch Kevin Conway cock his chin up smugly as he explains his dirty dealings to Skinner. Or sit back and grin, maliciously, as Marian Seldes's Carlotta Vance gaily tosses off the exact morsel of data that's going to louse up each person's evening. Clearly, Seldes's model is Mrs. Patrick Campbell, whom she played Off-Broadway in Dear Liar not long ago. Some have complained, oddly, that she isn't Marie Dressler, or that she isn't grandiose enough. But the character isn't a slapstick stage dowager, and asking Seldes for more grandiosity is like demanding three pounds of caviar as a dinner entree. Except in Mafiya circles, that's not how caviar is consumed.

In any case, a banquet isn't about gorging on a single dish, but about the variety of well-prepared items available for tasting. With culinary theater on this grand scale, it doesn't even matter if you encounter something you're allergic to or can't digest—a new taste treat will be along in a minute, like Joe Grifasi's bitter exit speech as the put-upon agent, or Sloane Shelton's reaction to a sip of brandy. Cannily, the authors often snatch these delights away as quickly as they're served, as if to warn us that the dim sum of our existence is transient at best, and its pleasures even more so. All of which makes a good reason to see Dinner at Eight while it is lavish, lively, and pertinent. Those who don't like it can grab one of Broadway's more usual Big Macs instead. And only a rich snob would be so rude as to come late to such a feast.


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

The barbecue at an upstate lakeside house in Christopher Shinn's What Didn't Happen is infinitely more casual—a writers' meal, consisting mainly of alcohol. Still, it's strikingly similar to the weekend gatherings in country-house plays past. Not Chekhov's Seagull, Shinn's quasi-announced model, but the light dramas of Broadway's 1930s and '40s, by S. N. Behrman and his ilk. Isn't that debate about social meaning versus entertainment in art straight out of No Time for Comedy? Shinn may know nothing of these plays; the Viconian point is that taste is cyclical. Leave a few loose ends dangling (Shinn leaves many), update the list of permissible topics, and what's passé becomes the latest thing. Shinn's interest in ideas (good) often comes at the expense of his characters' plausibility (bad), a situation Michael Wilson's direction doesn't always improve. Despite a strongish cast, much of the action rings false; only Chris Noth, as a cheerfully self-important hack, delivers a complete portrait. Shinn's too venturesome to be dismissed; praising his promise would be easier if there weren't so much flavor-of-the-month yap about his having fulfilled it.

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