The extraordinary success of their dramatic collaborations in the 1930s has inextricably linked Kaufman and Hart as a classic tandem, like Gilbert and Sullivan or Rodgers and Hammerstein. But just as there was a Rodgers and Hart before Oklahoma!, Kaufman had behind him more than a decade of successful collaboration with others before the breakthrough of Once in a Lifetime propelled his partnership with Hart. The prodigiously prolific Kaufman had begun his playwriting career as a soloist, with uneven results, achieving some acclaim with The Butter and Egg Man (revived successfully last season by the Atlantic Company). He soon found it more congenial to work with others and for nearly a half century afterwards worked with sixteen different collaborators, finding in each a distinctive sensibility it was his talent to help shape.
Working with Edna Ferber, Kaufman achieved two outstanding successes: The Royal Family (1927) and Dinner at Eight (1932). But where the former play, based on the flamboyant Barrymores, has been frequently revived professionally, the much darker latter play has seen only one revival since its opening. Part of the reason for this may be its elaborate cast and set demands, and part may be the definitive stamp imposed on the play by the MGM 1933 film version which gathered together a stellar ensemble including Lionel and John Barrymore, Marie Dressler, Wallace Beery, and Jean Harlow.
But now comes another revival by Lincoln Center-and a first-rate one at that. The play is a sophisticated comedy set in the depths of the Great Depression. But it is not frivolously escapist. Indeed, even without specific social references, an aura of economic misery leeches into the ostentatious rituals of the wealthy here displayed. Although most high comedy contains elements of melodrama, in Dinner at Eight the serious elements nearly overwhelm the comic.
Social-climbing Mrs. Oliver Jordan, whose husband’s firm is in financial trouble, feels obligated to reciprocate hospitality for a visiting British aristocratic couple by arranging a small dinner party. The guests are chosen both to impress–a faded stage star, a well-known if over-the-hill alcoholic actor–and to meet certain social obligations. This means the necessary inclusion of a philandering doctor and his wife, and a gauche, nouveau-riche couple who are loathed but powerful.
The play shifts from one set of guests to the other as it traces their stories from the time the invitations are sent to the time of the party itself, gradually revealing their entanglements, deceits, and, in one instance, final reckoning. Add to the mix the Jordan’s daughter who is having an affair with the fading actor and a parallel tale of below stairs betrayal involving the servants and you have a most unsavory portrait of a parasitic class in deep trouble. Kaufman and Ferber’s unique accomplishment is to offer their mordant observations with style and wit. There may not be an admirable individual in the bunch, but they are fascinatingly distinct.
As the complex intertwined relationships unfold, we–the present audience– recognize with pleasure an almost extinct dramatic profligacy. In our impoverished age of small casts and one-person shows it is exhilarating to see a non-musical with a cast of 28! There are no bread lines on this stage as Kaufman and Ferber feel free to add characters and scenes to amplify their corrosive portrait. One reason the play adapted so well to the movies is the range of its settings. Three acts, eleven scenes, six different sets, ranging from the Jordan’s sitting room and butler’s pantry in their town house to the actor’s fraying apartment in a residential hotel. With the aid of modern technology we segue from one set to another effortlessly. The broad physical spectrum brings an Elizabethan or Restoration scale to the proceedings.
Dinner at Eight presents, then, a challenge, one well met by director Gerald Gutierrez, by a splendid if essentially non-stellar cast, and, most particularly, by designer John Lee Beatty whose lovingly detailed sets all but steal the show.. Beatty begins each act with a spectral upstage vision of the beautifully set dinner table we never see occupied. Then each individual interior beautifully places the characters in the specificities of their era, a visual distillation aided by the subtle flamboyance of Catherine Zuber’s costumes. The show is a joy to look at as well as to listen to.
There are no above-the-title, A-list stars here, just a group of first-rate actors who make the most of their opportunities. Of the many excellent characterizations first place goes to Christine Ebersole’s aspiring, crisis-plagued hostess (much less fluttery than Billie Burke in the movie). As the engine of the play’s plot she has a job to do which she does with energy and charm as well as exasperation. Kevin Conway and Emily Skinner as the nouveau-riche parvenus are noticeably less over-the-top than were Wallace Beery and Jean Harlow but, consequently, more believable.
The least effective of the major characterizations is given by Byron Jennings as the fading actor, not, one might note, due to deficiencies in his acting ability, but rather because he seems too young and undissipated for the part. The irony with this character is that it was based on the dissolving career of John Barrymore. And who played it in the film? Barrymore himself offering a lacerating self-portrait which accurately observed that he would never be taken seriously as an actor again. This production cannot, of course, contain that level of irony, but still it disturbs as it charms which was surely its authors’ intent.