'Dinner at Eight:' dramatically delectabe

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  Jan. 3, 2003 at 1:31 PM
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NEW YORK, Jan. 3 (UPI) -- A Lincoln Center Theater revival of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's classic comedy, "Dinner at Eight" depicts affluent New Yorkers in the clutches of the Great Depression when fortunes and jobs were threatened on a scale never approached since -- until now.

Similarities in the financial situation of the early 1930s to what the nation's economy is just beginning to experience are what make the timing of this wry comedy's revival so appropriate. With a strong cast headed by the Tony Award-winning Christine Ebersole in a priceless performance and one of the handsomest stage productions in recent theater history, "Dinner at Eight" is a full-course theatrical feast.

One of the characters in the play recalls those corporate buccaneers whose greedy deeds have made headline news in recent months. Instantly recognizable by his swagger and gab, he is Dan Packard, newly rich from mines in Montana and eager to wrest control of a merchant marine firm in financial difficulty from an ailing old-line tycoon he has befriended.

Packard and his voluptuous vulgarian wife have been invited by the tycoon, Oliver Jordan, over the objections of his snobbish wife Millicent, played by Ebersole, to a dinner in honor of a visiting British lord and his lady. The hostess runs into a variety of snags, capped by the unexplained departure of her noble guests for Florida on the eve of the event.

This gives Ebersole the chance to act out a nervous breakdown center stage, a wondrously funny thing to watch as she staggers about clutching at the air and her evaporating guest list. Little does she know that the one guest she can count on -- a has-been movie matinee idol in need of a good meal -- will also let her down. He has committed suicide.

Except for Millicent Jordan's moment of exasperation, Tony Award-winning director Gerald Gutierrez has kept the action as naturalistic as possible, even in situations that are intrinsically begging for over-the-top comic handling. This gives the essentially dark comedy a sense of credibility it might not otherwise enjoy, and even such a veteran laugh-grabber as Marian Seldes keeps the role of a flamboyant aging actress from getting out of hand.

Playwright Kaufman collaborated on six plays with Ferber, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist ("So Big"). Their "Dinner at Eight," which premiered in 1932, has only been revived on Broadway once and is more familiar as a cult movie made in 1933 starring Jean Harlow, Wallace Beery, Marie Dressler, and Lionel and John Barrymore.

The main weakness of the play is that it ends as the Jordans' guests leave the drawing room to go into dinner and the audience never has the chance to savor the conversation that must surely have revealed the extent of the intrigue and scandal that links the characters. But leaving a play wanting more is not a bad thing and may be considered the ultimate compliment one can pay a playwright.

Other fine performances are being given by James Rebhorn as Jordan, an aristocrat who inherited his shipping business, Kevin Conway as the duplicitous Dan Packard, Emily Skinner as his tarty but practical wife, Kitty, and Byron Jennings as the self-dramatizing actor at the end of his tether. Samantha Soul is sympathetic as the Jordans' daughter Paula, hopelessly in love with the older, dashing Jennings.

Enid Graham gives a delicious accounting of Millicent Jordan's lady's maid pursued by both the butler and the chauffeur, and Joe Grifasi gives a convincing characterization of Renault's loyal but unbearably common theatrical agent. John Dossett is teamed with Joanne Camp as the Jordan family doctor and his wife, the most normal couple in the play if you overlook the doctor's affair with Kitty Packard.

The genius of set designer John Lee Beatty has never had a better showcase.

The show opens and closes with the vision of a dinner table appointed in white and silver suspended on a dark stage and progresses with six interior sets, each more lavish than the last in their use of rich wood paneling, glittering crystal chandeliers and sconces, gilded furnishings, and Aubusson carpets. David Weiner's lighting is always flattering.

Adding to this treat for the eye are the fabulously designed period costumes by Catherine Zubar, so classic that almost all could be worn today without seeming dated. Another pleasure is original music by Robert Waldman that adds much to the atmosphere of elegance that makes "Dinner at Eight" a delectable theatrical experience.

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