At the risk of making reductive generalizations, there are certain national affinities that make some plays a better fit for British actors — and audiences — than for Americans. In its successful London run, the chilly composure and rigid politesse of the characters in David Eldridge’s “Festen” were like a second skin to the cast, and Rufus Norris’ deceptively stark staging shaped the drama into a striking marriage of darkest emotional turmoil and perversely juicy intrigue. But American actors tend too often to want to be liked. That’s just a part of the problem with Norris’ curiously ineffectual Broadway reworking of the production.
Malevolent humor is as intrinsic to Eldridge’s play as are the shame, denial and psychological scarring in which it traffics. But that humor should surface as a nervous response to the supremely uncomfortable interpersonal dynamics and ugly revelations of the Danish family gathering being chronicled.
The play opens with an audio staple of horror movies — the eerie voice of a giggling child singing a nursery rhyme, here accompanied by the sound of running water — but it’s clear from the first scene that there’s no menace in the mood. At almost every point through the production, tension is diffused by actors either lobbying too blatantly for laughs or simply showing an awkward disconnect from the material.
British playwright Eldridge adapted “Festen” from Thomas Vinterberg’s 1998 film of the same name, released in the U.S. as “The Celebration.” The first and still the best of the films made under the pompously rigorous manifesto of technical asceticism known as Dogme, the drama’s unnerving intensity was given additional texture by its agitated hand-held camerawork and unadorned, fly-on-the-wall observational style.
Eldridge and Norris, who premiered the play in 2004 at the Almeida before transferring to the West End and then to a U.K. tour, opted for a completely different but no less effective stamp of austerity, an adroit assemblage of Ian MacNeil’s bold design, Jean Kalman’s crepuscular lighting, Orlando Gough’s glowering music and Paul Arditti’s ominous sound design. Fluid scene transitions are established via single dominating design elements — a bed, a long, Last Supper-like table — that flow from the walls or floor of an imposingly bare black space. Visually, the production remains commanding. But something has gone haywire with the tone, sapping the play’s intensity.
The scene is a country home in Denmark where a well-heeled family gathers for the 60th birthday of patriarch Helge (Larry Bryggman). Joining him are glacial wife Else (Ali MacGraw), brooding son Christian (Michael Hayden), free-spirit daughter Helene (Julianna Margulies) and loose-cannon son Michael (Jeremy Sisto), prone to inappropriate behavior. Conspicuously absent is Christian’s twin sister, whose recent suicide remains an open wound for him.
Also on hand are spouses, partners, business and Freemasonry associates, including Helmut (Christopher Evan Welch), a doughy German who worked his way up from dishwasher to managing director of Helge’s restaurant business. As toastmeister, his is the unenviable job of struggling to maintain civility while the evening disintegrates into chaos.
The trigger for that chaos is Christian’s speech. The tinkling sound of cutlery on stemware signals silence for a toast; instead Christian seizes the occasion to recall his dead sister and then to turn that reminiscence into an accusatory bomb lobbed at their father.
What makes “Festen” so appallingly funny, when it’s played right, is the way that in this stifling microcosmic society of cultivated appearances and hypocritical behavioral codes, the correct response to the vile secrets being exposed is to carry on sipping wine and nibbling entrees as if nothing untoward had been said. Or to launch into determinedly cheerful sing-alongs, the most sinister of which is a racist ditty about Hottentots, aimed to provoke Helene’s black boyfriend (Keith Davis).
The master stroke of Norris’ production is that as the truth becomes increasingly impossible to ignore with each fresh revelation, the regimented tableaux of his staging slowly dissolve into twisted disorder.
Vinterberg’s film was a natural for stage adaptation — its characters held captive in a single setting in which the crushing weight of the past comes crashing down on the present. Given the ease of the transposition, there’s nothing especially artful in the writing here, save for one terrific sequence that represents an ingeniously crafted stage equivalent to cross-cutting in film.
The action in three separate rooms is played out simultaneously around a single bed by Christian, Helene and Michael and his wife (Carrie Preston). There’s something hypnotically messy about these private moments spilling over into each other without the characters’ awareness, providing the production’s most incisive scene.
The cast members generally feel a long way from owning their roles but there are notes of confidence. Hayden is perhaps too wholesome and untroubled-looking to be an ideal Christian but his bottled-up anger is compelling to watch, as is his sputtering release of raw pain and the additional, renewed desperation it brings. Margulies also throws herself into her character with spirit and exposed nerves; it’s hard to take your eyes off her as she struggles to maintain some warmth toward her family despite the inescapable awareness there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark.
And in the small role of the family chef and Christian’s boyhood friend, Kim, who encourages his attacks on Helge partly in response to the class frictions that ripple through the play, C.J. Wilson conveys a dynamic grasp of the brittle-edged Scandinavian character.
But there are crucial holes in the cast that sink the production. Sisto is too manic, too untethered from his first moment onstage, apparently still in character from “Six Feet Under” and off his meds. In a Broadway debut that’s inauspicious to say the least, MacGraw is insufficiently skilled to channel her stiffness into the character’s artificial poise and deep denial. Else has only one important speech, but it’s painful.
The most debilitating weakness, however, is Bryggman. Often a fine actor, here he is such an innocuous, unthreatening figure that despite Helge’s cold authority, his refined vulgarity and moral depravity, the character remains remote. Instead of presenting a steely figurehead of hollow respectability, Bryggman hobbles the play by merely tracing a wan outline.