Festen A dramatization by David Eldridge based on the Dogme film and play by Thomas Vinterberg, Mogens Rukov and Bo Hr. Hansen. Directed by Rufus Norris. Designed by Ian Macneil. Costumes by Joan Wadge. Lighting by Jean Kalman. Music by Orlando Gough. Sound by Paul Arditti. Cast: Larry Bryggman, Michael Hayden, Ali Macgraw, Julianna Margulies, Jeremy Sisto, David Patrick Kelly, Carrie Preston, Christopher Evan Welch, John Carter, Diane Davis, Keith Davis, Stephen Kunken, Meredith Lipson, Ryan Simpkins, C.J. Wilson.
A flood of black is sweeping across the stage of the Music Box, threatening to wipe away anything and everything that dares deny its existence. The real and imaginary ghosts controlling it won't be ignored, and they can't find their rest until everyone onstage and in the house is unsettled by the macabre message they bear.
Alas, those spirits are destined to be as restless as the audience at Festen, the fitful stage adaptation of Thomas Vinterberg and Mogens Rukov's 1998 Danish film of the same name. Adaptor David Eldridge and director Rufus Norris have tried to give those portentous poltergeists a permanent home in everyone's mind by presenting a play that might satisfy those who prefer their horror any number of ways: blatant, subtle, deeply personal, or bitterly ironic. But in trying to do too much, they've accomplished too little.
It's the missed opportunities that depress more than anything else in this potentially powerful play. The solid roster of actors, numbering some major talents culled from the stage and screen, should have no trouble puncturing the mind and heart when set upon a fine, theatrical story that wouldn't be out of place in the canons of Tennessee Williams or William Inge. Yet there's a distance between performers and material, and performers and audience, that prevents this tale about the public unmasking of a child molester from catching fire.
The man in question is a husband of 39 years and a father of four who's celebrating his 60th birthday at a party with family and friends. His son, who with his recently deceased sister was a frequent victim, makes the accusation at dinner, setting off a storm denial, cover-ups, and retribution that thrusts the party - and those gathered - into chaos.
The resulting insanity, which alternates between the tragic (the dead sister's last words, and possible return from the grave) and the farcical (the family and guests chasing the son to keep him quiet), feels highly contrived in the gloomy light of the very serious subject matter. At least on this side of the pond. It's possible that in London, where this production played at the Almeida Theatre, the show had a more austere, consistent tone that balanced the proceedings better than happens at the Music Box.
In this way, Festen recalls last season's Democracy, Michael Frayn's play about the political machinations surrounding West German chancellor Willy Brandt. Frayn's intriguing espionage thriller was a hit at London's National Theatre, but was sabotaged in the U.S. by a cast that couldn't find in the highly British text and production enough American analogues to allow the story to ring true for us.
That problem is even more greatly exacerbated here by a cast operating in so many different styles, it's as if someone is operating a remote control every time a new line is spoken. Superb stage actors like Larry Bryggman (as the father) and Michael Hayden (the secret-shattering son) find in the lines the proper style and attitude for communicating their complex, conflicting emotions. Screen stars like Julianna Margulies and Jeremy Sisto, as the other two surviving siblings, shine only in the miniature moments that force them to internalize as thoroughly as they might before a camera; they affect occasionally, but too often lack the properly detailed size needed to fill a theater. Ali MacGraw, as the possibly complicit mother, speaks and moves as if auditioning to be a model at an auto show; she's a deflating non-presence in a role that should provide firm anchoring for the fractured family.
The large supporting cast is a mixed bag, filled with fair but uncentered performances that don't effectively round out the "normal" crowd that should contrast the escalating central eccentricities. However, Stephen Kunken and C.J. Wilson shine as two hired hands who try to keep the unraveling birthday on track, and Keith Davis is highly amusing as Margulies's late-arriving boyfriend, who strips away a layer of implicit racial prejudice the family would prefer to conceal.
The surprisingly jarring nature of Davis's scenes highlights the production's most successful element: its subtext. In a story about the vast chasm that can exist between the spoken and the unspoken, it's vital, and it isn't missing. The family's working to brace itself from assault is a universal enough idea to find fiery appropriateness here, especially in Norris's oppressive, stark staging. The dark walls of the set (Ian MacNeil), dimly pointed lighting (Jean Kalman), and surreptitiously spooky sound design (Paul Arditti) expertly suggest an army of invisible shadows representing the forces everyone is trying in vain to keep at bay.
Their attempts to smooth over uncomfortable moments with song, their mocking of Margulies's boyfriend's race, and their general willingness to look past even the most furious elephants rampaging about the room give them a curiously endearing quality, even after the truth they're hiding from is revealed. Our culture, which too often celebrates sweeping things this bad (and worse) under the rug, makes the play as timely and relevant for the U.S. as for Europe.
But it needs at its center a family that has grown almost violently close in struggling to prevent shattering under the actions of its patriarch; this Festen has a group of people, and actors, who aren't believably bound together by anything. This sadly subverts their ability to realistically convince us of the battle that can erupt between those determined to keep quiet and those who believe wounds are only healed by speaking out.