The crystal glitters, and the china is impeccable, but the main course turns out to be day-old meatloaf — thus might one sum up the dispiriting news about Lincoln Center Theater’s lavish but limp revival of “Dinner at Eight,” George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s comedy about genteel desperation among the American upper crust in the dark days of the Depression. Here the sense of despair is mostly the audience’s, as we watch the actors struggle to outrun the shadows of the stars who put their indelible stamp on these roles in the celebrated movie version of the material. Almost to a man — and to a woman — they lose the race, some more spectacularly than others. And as one elegantly appointed, impeccably realized set after another slides into view, it’s hard not to note the heedless consumption implicitly condemned by the play’s authors has an unhappy analog in the waste of resources represented by the staging itself.
The stated raison d’etre for the revival has been to underscore the play’s probing depiction of an unraveling social order, pointing up the parallels between quickly tarnishing gilded ages then and now. The resonance is there for the taking, of course, as we watch high-flying members of the American meritocracy, most notably the scion of a major shipping concern, ground to dust by the machinery of market forces, aided by their own limitless appetites and the manipulations of unregulated crooks. But protestations that the stage play was measurably “darker” than the glossy MGM movie remain unproven; the movie is hardly all floss and, with a pair of Barrymores in the key roles of the mutually doomed businessman and stage star, it is vastly more poignant than Gerald Gutierrez’s hollow, only fitfully funny staging.
Things begin on a bright note. Christine Ebersole provides much of the evening’s limited supply of comic effervescence with her madly chipper, socially rapacious Millicent Jordan. The careful arrangement, and disastrous unraveling, of Millicent’s elaborate supper party provides the play’s canny narrative blueprint. The first scene finds Millicent lounging in her salon, just one of John Lee Beatty’s stunningly detailed, magnificently upholstered settings. With a gilt phone more or less permanently affixed to her ear, Ebersole’s Millicent approaches her appointed task with the hardy determination of a great general marshaling a major campaign. As she barks out invitations, with varying degrees of sincerity, Ebersole’s marvelously soignee Millicent is delicious, like Norma Shearer played back at the wrong speed — or maybe Norma Shearer on speed.
But this choice piece of casting is just about the only one on view here. It’s not that the actors can’t compete in terms of sheer star power with the celebrated interpreters of these roles — after all, who could outshine those Barrymores, or Marie Dressler, or, for goodness’ sake, Jean Harlow? It is that most of them fail to bring anything to the roles that would compensate for a lack of glamour: There is little freshness, comic vitality or emotional substance in the performances, despite the juicy if two-dimensional nature of these characters.
James Rebhorn is stiff and emotionally opaque as Millicent’s troubled husband, Oliver — the good guy with a bum ticker who’s worried to distraction by his dithering wife and duped out of the family business by the grasping vulgarian Packard. His plight scarcely raises a pang in our hearts. Byron Jennings, as the John Barrymore-ish actor Larry Renault, the role played — somewhat ghoulishly — by the man himself in the movie, is hardly more touching as the alcoholic silent star holed up in a hotel room he can’t afford. It’s a proficient, technically assured but unaffecting turn.
The more overtly comic roles aren’t any better served. Marian Seldes was a last-minute replacement for an ailing Dorothy Loudon, and deserves some indulgence for recycling her usual arsenal of theatrical fireworks. In any case, she is somewhat miscast as an aging actress at loose ends — it’s hard to believe that a woman who wears Catherine Zuber’s voluptuous costumes with such elegant flair is in semi-desperate straits. Also miscast, to more debilitating effect for the production, is Emily Skinner, who plays Packard’s hard-bitten, adulterous wife, Kitty — perhaps the role most unforgettably owned by its movie interpreter, Harlow. There is nothing new or surprising in Skinner’s blunt interpretation of this classic comic bonbon of a part.
One might observe that more care has been taken in the casting of ottomans, chaise longues and period bric-a-brac than actors. How else to explain the choice of Enid Graham as the matrimonially inclined maid Dora? When casting about for actresses to play members of the lower orders, it would seem wise to look beyond the many Enids of the acting world. Such daintily named dames are not likely to come easily to words like “ain’t,” as Graham promptly proves with her flat, flavorless turn. The farcical subplot about Dora’s warring suitors, and a certain lobster aspic, is handled ham-fistedly, although Gutierrez’s determination to get laughs is rewarded, at least, when the butler Gustave, one of her beaux, makes repeated appearances covered in bruises and bandages.
In the cast of more than 20 speaking roles there are, of course, some commendable performances. Kevin Conway is right on the money as the greedy arriviste Packard, and Joe Grifasi is fine in the small role of Larry Renault’s put-upon agent Max, who finally drops his pity for his employer and shatters the last of his illusions. Joanne Camp gives a nicely muted, graceful perf as the long-suffering wife of an adulterous husband making time with Mrs. Packard, and Samantha Soule is pert and appealing as the young Paula Jordan, who is two-timing her fiance with Renault.
But the nuance-free performances in most of the central roles ultimately expose the play’s weaknesses. Its melodramatic underpinnings show rather baldly at times, and even its more foolproof comic developments — Millicent’s aria of self-obsession, in which she lambastes her soon-to-croak husband for bothering her with his illness when her dinner party is about to implode — are played at a too-obvious pitch that reveals a certain amount of desperation. And what’s that old line about acting with animals and children? Sure enough, the arrival of a Pekinese in the play’s last moments almost brings down the house.
Of course, the menage onstage is headed the same way: The quartet of musicians sawing away in the parlor while the guests repair to the dining room, cackling like magpies, puts us in mind of a certain waterlogged luxury liner, but here it’s not just the corrupt social order that’s going down for the count but also a laboriously produced and sadly unrewarding theatrical enterprise.