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Christine Ebersole in Dinner at Eight
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
The word "swank" has been in the language since the early 1800s, but it reached its peak in the 1930s when swank -- meaning a classy combination of money and taste -- was a much-coveted attribute. Examples of swank probably don't get better than the star-studded 1933 film adaptation of George S. Kaufman's and Edna Ferber's Dinner at Eight. Written in 1932, the play was both a Depression-era knock at swank as a superficial cover-up for deep societal fissures and a celebration of swank as a helpful tool for muddling through.

There's plenty for swank lovers in the very look of Lincoln Center Theater's Dinner at Eight revival. John Lee Beatty, than whom no one alive today does better upscale stage interiors, is so on form that he's practically sailing. The play, presented here in three acts as written, takes place in many rooms of the Oliver Jordans' palatial Manhattan home as well as in a top-flight hotel, the office of a physician to the rich, and the bedroom of a battling arriviste couple. So Beatty gets to create numerous, lavish surroundings in silver and gold tones; the set pieces glide across the stage of the Vivian Beaumont theater or rise regally from below. The cast members who populate the ravishing sets are clad in equally ravishing costumes, designed by Catherine Zuber in styles that bring to mind couturiers like Molyneux and MGM's brilliant Adrian. The women ooze through doors and perch on settees in fur-trimmed day clothes; in the final party scene, they swish about in flowing, glowing fabrics made to appear even more stunning by David Weiner's soft lighting.

Of course, the drawback of a production that causes the audience to leave humming the sets, costumes and lighting (and maybe even Robert Waldman's original score) is that the emphasis is on the wrong things. It's something of a theatrical equivalent to relying on special effects to distinguish a movie. What should be hummed is the play itself and its ability to entertain while illuminating; also memorable should be the players' part in bringing such discussion about.

Most people's affection for Dinner at Eight is probably based on the film version. The story of this comedy-drama, retained when transferred to celluloid, is simple enough: Millicent Jordan (Christine Ebersole), a feather-headed socialite and wife to shipping mogul Oliver (James Rebhorn), decides to entertain Lord and Lady Ferncliffe, who are due in New York. Included on her guest list are a doctor to the well heeled named J. W. Talbot (John Dossett) and his wife, Lucy (Joanne Camp); fading film star Larry Renault (Byron Jennings); retired stage actress Carlotta Vance (Marian Seldes); and the coarse Dan and Kitty Packard (Kevin Conway, Emily Skinner).

James Rebhorn and Marian Seldes in Dinner at Eight
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
In the week leading up to the splashy event, the prospective diners are examined in vignettes that reveal just about everyone but the Packards to be in dire emotional and/or economic straits. Unhappy times also dog the 19-year-old Jordan daughter, Paula (Samantha Soule), who's engaged to a dull sounding chap but has fallen for the fortyish booze-hound Renault. The Jordan servants are also in upheaval. Butler Gustave (Simon Jutras) woos and marries upstairs maid Dora (Enid Graham) to the dismay of chauffeur Ricci (Mark Lotito), while the cook, Mrs. Wendel (Sloane Shelton), prepares a lobster aspic that comes to no good end -- as do most of Millicent Jordan's hastily laid plans.

During a time when the populace was wondering how to pay the rent, it was sly of Kaufman and Ferber to jolly up a plot that went behind the figurative and literal facades of the fabulously wealthy to declare that things weren't so rosy there, either. It's amusing and affecting to watch some of these self-centered folks unravel and to hear Millicent rage that no one understands the troubles she sees. But the Kaufman-Ferber script doesn't go very far or in too deep. Indeed, here's an instance where the film adaptation -- executed by Francis Marion and Herman J. Mankiewicz, with additional dialogue by the reliable Donald Ogden Stewart -- improves on the original. No doubt it was these Tinseltown fellows who threaded running gags into the action and intensified the characters' woes so that the accumulating financial collapses have a strong impact by the time "The End" flashes on the screen. Patrons of the Lincoln Center production who haven't seen the movie may have a perfectly pleasant time, but those who wait for the moment when Kitty Packard (played in the film by Jean Harlow) remarks that she was reading a book the other day and Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler on screen) reacts with an outlandish take will wait in vain.

Not only is the line and other like it not there, but neither, of course, are Harlow and Dressler. Had these icons merely been cast because they were in the MGM stable and needed to be kept working, it would be one thing, but that wasn't the situation; they were ideally slotted, as was everyone in the movie, and their star wattage contributed invaluably to the property's mystique. That mystique is unmatched by players whom director Gerald Gutierrez helms with competence that infrequently rises to inspiration. Those scoring nicely include Christine Ebersole, who is made up to have a wide-eyed but blank expression. She connects with her role despite the fact that she's not precisely right for it; as always, her intelligence shines through.

Emily Skinner and Kevin Conway
in Dinner at Eight
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
Marian Seldes, who stepped into this production on short notice when Dorothy Loudon stepped out, does eccentric grandiosity as well as anyone this side of Maggie Smith. She gets laughs every time she points a well-shod toe or waves a well-sleeved arm. James Rebhorn, who so often stands out as one version or another of a plodding man, brings dignity to a fellow facing undignified circumstance. Byron Jennings does strong John Barrymore-profile duty here and certainly bounces back from the shenanigans he was forced to get up to in, ahem, Steve Martin's Underpants.

As the philandering doc and his wise but impatient wife, John Dossett and Joanne Camp make their turns count, while Joe Grifasi brings his usual, helpful, down-to-earth presence to the smallish part of Larry Renault's tolerant agent. Less impressive performances are given by Emily Skinner, who fills out Catherine Zuber's cleavage-focused outfits better than she fills out the sharp remarks handed her, and Kevin Conway. When these two face off, they don't have the caged-dog-and-cat ferocity they ought to have.

In sum, this Dinner at Eight is more fast food than feast food.

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