Dinner At Eight by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. Directed by Gerald Gutierrez. Sets by John Lee Beatty. Costumes by Catherine Zuber. Lighting by David Weiner. Original Music by Robert Waldman. Sound by Aural Fixation. Cast: Joanne Camp, Rhys Coiro, Kevin Conway, John Dossett, Christine Ebersole, Julian Gamble, Enid Graham, Joe Grifasi, Byron Jennings, Simon Jutras, Joseph Kamal, Karl Kenzler, Mark La Mura, Anne Lange, Philip LeStrange, Mark Lotito, Charlotte Maier, Peter Maloney, Deborah Mayo, Ann McDonough, James Rebhorn, Brian Reddy, Marian Seldes, Sloane Shelton, Emily Skinner, Samantha Soule, David Wohl. Leadership support for Dinner at Eight is generously provided by The Blanche and Irving Laurie Foundation. Dinner at Eight has been made possible, in part, by a gift from the estate of Edith K. Ehrman. Special thanks to the Eleanor Naylor Dana Charitable Trust for Supporting Dinner at Eight. LCT gratefully acknowledges extraordinary support from The Lila Acheson and DeWitt Wallace Endowment Fund. American Airlines is the official airline of Lincoln Center Theater. Lincoln Center Theater thanks the Theatre Development Fund for its support of this production. Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont is under the direction of Andre Bishop and Bernard Gersten.
Though the characters in the George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's 1932 play Dinner at Eight are living in the depths of the Great Depression, they don't have a lot of time to be depressed. Financial problems or no, they have too much living to do.
Audiences attending the new revival of the play at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center may experience something similar. The times may have changed, but the country's financial problems and emphasis on status make Dinner at Eight particularly relevant today. The production also has the happy fortune of being well directed (by Gerald Gutierrez), appropriately cast, and effectively acted.
If the revival has a significant flaw, it's that Gutierrez and his company are too aware of the problems facing the world outside the Vivian Beaumont, and want the audience to see all the same connections too vividly. This tends to place some unnecessary weight on the actors and their performances, removing a certain buoyancy that might make the play more entertaining still. But, as the actors are well suited to their roles, this is a minor complaint. With such performers as Marian Seldes, James Rebhorn, Emily Skinner, John Dossett, and Byron Jennings present, little else matters. You're guaranteed an intricately acted and thoughtful production, whatever other problems may exist.
Rebhorn plays Oliver Jordan, an uneasy businessman, whose wife Millicent (Christine Ebersole) is planning a dinner party ostensibly in honor of a couple of British aristocrats. She's actually doing it to be seen as one of the active social elite, so all the best people (or the best alternatives) must be invited. These include eccentric actress Carlotta Vance (Seldes), common-bred social climbers Dan and Kitty Packard (Kevin Conway and Emily Skinner), Rebhorn's physician Doctor Talbot (Dossett) and his wife (Joanne Camp), the fading matinee idol Larry Renault (Byron Jennings), and so on.
But Kaufman and Ferber have provided two twists to this story. The first is that the play's dramatic tension is established almost entirely before the party begins. These characters have every reason to stay apart from one another, as nearly everyone is cheating on, lying to, or stealing from someone else. The second comes from the juxtaposition of the servant characters with their employers. The maid and butler (Enid Graham and Simon Jutras) serving the Jordans are enacting their own mini soap opera with the violent limo driver (Mark Lotito), and Kitty's maid Tiny (Charlotte Maier) makes an art of knowing how to keep her eyes open and her mouth shut.
This is enough to create an exquisitely layered dish, and make Dinner at Eight a bountiful feast. The physical production itself proves to be solely the icing on this cake. Catherine Zuber's costumes are nice, period yet slightly comical, suggesting both an embracing and a detachment from the era. John Lee Beatty, however, makes an astounding impression with his expansive and intricate designs providing seven exquisitely designed sets displaying locales all over New York.
Of the actors, Seldes stands above the rest (as usual), giving the sort of hilarious yet touching performance at which she excels. Rebhorn and Dossett make an art of understatement, while Jennings finds just the right notes to hit to make his stuffy yet frightened character seem heart-breakingly real. Skinner gives one of her most detailed characterizations yet as a would-be society wife, and Samantha Soule shines with a youthful charm as the Jordans' daughter.
Christine Ebersole makes the play's most remarkable transformation, coming across as particularly stiff and frigid during the play's earlier scenes, yet raising the rafters when she loses control of her emotions in the last scene of the second act. It's a key scene, one that underscores the vital points at the heart of the show and a question we should all ask ourselves: What in life, is truly the most important?
The ending of the play is inconclusive; it's entirely possible that the characters, left to their own devices, would never find the answers for themselves. Yet, taken as an object lesson, there's plenty in Dinner at Eight to ponder, and - taken as theatre - even more to savor, regardless of where your dramatic tastes lie. Dinner at Eight works on a number of levels, most of them intriguing and worthy of further exploration.
So, should you find yourself invited to Dinner at Eight, go. If you're not, go anyway. This party is worth crashing.