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Dinner at Eight is one of those splendid, overstuffed American plays that are seldom seen these days, and the loss is definitely ours. (Surprisingly, even the star-laden 1933 George Cukor film adaptation with John and Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Jean Harlow, Marie Dressler, Billie Burke, and Lee Tracy is presently unavailable on DVD.) The reasons this bitter George S. Kaufman/Edna Ferber comedy has largely disappeared may vary — changing tastes and modes of theatrical production, the never-ending craze for the new — but I suspect it has more to do with the show's physical demands.
The play has, first, an unusually large cast list. Not unsurprising for 1932, when it opened, but less practicable now, with inflated costs and deflated revenues. There are, essentially, two casts: the society types whose varied reactions to a dinner party invitation propel the plot (or plots, as the case may be); and their mirror images: the butlers, maids, chauffeurs, cooks, nurses, bellhops, and secretaries who free the aristos for their business deals, illicit courtships, and shopping excursions. To populate an ensemble piece such as this one, a university staging is probably the ideal.
Second, the script requires six full sets. This may, ironically, be less problematic than the issue of its extended dramatis persona; creative design, coupled with a modern audience's acceptance of bold theatricality over utter realism, can carry the day.
These difficulties are met by the current University Theatre at N.C. State production (in Thompson Theater in Raleigh, North Carolina) in the first instance, well, and in the second, triumphantly.
The physical production, as designed by John C. McIlwee (who also did the stunning costumes), could be bested only by means of a revolve or computer system that would allow its pieces to move on and off quickly during the changes. And in any case, there can be great charm in watching the "downstairs" characters complete the process swiftly and efficiently, as they do here.
McIlwee's inspired devices include an Art Deco cartouche that dominates the upper left corner of the stage like both a greeting and an admonition, celebrating its privileged little world while acknowledging the heat death of it; sets of moveable, bookended units, one festooned with embroidered figures that seem to gaze indifferently at each other, another adorned in dull gold with mirrors; a shipping office whose huge bow window is dominated by a marvelously stylized backdrop; and an hotel suite complimented by an elegant, incomplete arch and a circular, marbled fireplace with over-wrought andirons and a round painting of irises on the mantle.
The play's director, Fred Gorelick, paces the three acts briskly and inventively, gets some beautifully observed performances from an uneven cast, and makes some curious choices that blunt his overall effectiveness. First, he ends each scene with a stylized tableau which, in every case, is held... and held... and held. Second, in the second act doctor's office scene, three characters in succession are placed in a consulting chair with their backs to the audience while delivering lines and even monologues containing either important information or emotional confession. Gorelick also ignores the script's staging particulars during the crucial Act Three suicide, which here ends, not with a pathetic gesture of self-aggrandizement, but with the victim seeming to drift off to an afternoon nap.
My third cavil concerns something which occasionally adds to the enjoyment of the play but which in one essential way detracts from its total impact. Long snatches of dialogue, plot, and characterization are lifted intact from the MGM screenplay, to which neither Kaufman nor Ferber contributed (its principal authors were Frances Marion and Herman J. Mankiewicz, with assists from Donald Ogden Stewart and Sam Harris.)
What's gained in the process of tidying up loose ends are some pat last-minute conversions, one neat double-cross, a piece of bone-chilling advice offered to a grieving young woman who seems — horribly — grateful for it, and the justifiably famous final exchange between a young gold-digger and a grizzled veteran of the sex-and-money wars (Harlow and Dressler in the movie.) What's lost, however, is the exquisite irony of the play's devastating final scene, in which the characters remain blithely, frivolously (and, for the audience, unbearably) ignorant of lethal matters, financial ruin lies just around the corner, and nothing is resolved.
As half the middle-aged couple at the center of the play's social whirl, Jordan Smith contributes another of his effectively weary, patient characterizations of men on the verge of defeat who know it, and will not go gentle. As the other half, the casting of the dependable Catherine Rodgers is as misjudged as the hysterical fall she's required to take onto an ottoman at the end of the second act. She's too practical, and too intelligent, to be completely believable as the vain, silly woman she's playing.
As the aging former stage star whose erotic profligacy has stranded her in genteel poverty, Sandi Sullivan is amusing but not wholly creditable. She lacks the coquetry of the professional courtesan who self-consciously trots out her practiced charm for a mess of pottage. Similarly, Gregor McElvogue has neither the age nor the fading pulchritude of the bibulous former matinee idol, and his eventual reduction to begging lacks the sickly charming desperation required. As his harried agent, David Klionsky contributes a queer mix of the artificial and the realistic — overstated caricature redeemed by a genuine explosion of righteous (and overdue) fury.
As the young woman whose romantic passion blinds her to the obvious, Jackie Willse struggles valiantly with a role that could defeat a seasoned actor. Jon Pheloung carries the requisite good looks of the philandering doctor, but he too is defeated by a part so sketchy as to be nearly a pencil-jot. Collette Rutherford fares better as the wife resigned to his dalliances, and is assisted immeasurably by her party-scene entrance in one of McIlwee's most jaw-droppingly fabulous creations. Nicole Quenelle lacks the dryness of wit that could make her the perfect foil for her social-climbing sister (though she too gets a stunner of a dress for the party.) But while Mette CJ Schladweiler is hilariously tremulous as a star-struck amanuensis, Ben Kraudel is all bluster and no character as an especially nefarious member of the nouveau riche.
The servant roles are better matched in toto. These include the foolish, unfettered romanticism of Kerry Sullivan's maid, the easily penetrated disingenuousness of Francis Sarnie IV's butler, the marvelously robust comedy of Leah Shawn Moye's cook, and the wounded vanity of Jeramy Blackford's chauffeur who should, however, check his posture when dealing with his employer.
The evening's crowning glory, however, is Katie Flaherty's utterly original reading of a restless young slattern. Bedecked by a halo of marcelled (and well-bleached) tresses and disporting herself upon a wittily oversized bed, this young actor gives a performance of astonishing comedic fulsomeness. Flaherty's brilliance — her canny use of both face and body, her unerring grasp of timing as she strikes, with exactly the right panache and for precisely the correct amount of time, her wickedly idiosyncratic poses, the nonchalant accuracy with which she tosses a puzzle box, the perfect means by which she cuts short an insouciant, flippant gesture, the way she all but makes loves to an overstuffed chair — strikes me as almost supernal, especially for one so young.
This is the sort of performance we so fervently hope for, and are so rarely rewarded with; I suspect it will be remembered at Thompson long after Flaherty herself has left the campus. You can see Dinner at Eight for any number of good reasons, or for a single, perfect, one.
University Theatre at N.C. State presents Dinner at Eight Thursday-Saturday, Aug. 14-16, and 21-23, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Aug. 17, at 3 p.m. in NCSU's Thompson Theater, corner of Dunn Ave. and Jensen Dr., Raleigh, North Carolina. $14 ($6 NCSU students and $12 other students, seniors, and NCSU faculty and staff). (Note: Anyone who purchases a 2003-2004 University Theatre at N.C. State season ticket will get a complimentary ticket for Dinner at Eight.) 919/515-1100. http://www7.acs.ncsu.edu/University_Players/dinnerateight.htm.