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.

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.


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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