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Dinner is Served

Lincoln Center Theater mounts a smashing revival of Kaufman and Ferber's Depression- haunted comedy Dinner at Eight; Neil LaBute looks at the opportunistic side of 9/11.

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Grande Dame: Marian Seldes sparkles as an aging actress in Dinner.  

George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's Dinner at Eight, a success in 1932, was turned into a star-studded hit movie in 1933. Revivals of the play have proved shaky, but I can't see how the Lincoln Center Theater production can be anything but a smash.

It concerns the planning of a dinner party by Millicent Jordan, society hostess and wife to the magnate Oliver Jordan, whose shipping line is seriously imperiled. The party is supposed to help, being thrown for a knighted British nabob and spouse, with opportunities for business deals and social climbing. But everything threatens to, or actually does, go wrong.

Larry Renault, the invited fading matinee idol, with whom the daughter of the house, Paula, fiancée of another, is having an affair, will lose out on a last comeback chance, with fatal consequences. Carlotta, a likewise declining theatrical grande dame and Oliver's former lover, sells her stock in the shipping line to henchmen of Dan Packard, a rich parvenu about to bankrupt Jordan. Packard accepts Millicent's invitation, partly at the insistence of Kitty, his spoiled wife, a former hat-check girl, partly to profit from meeting the mighty Brit.

Also invited are Dr. Talbot, Kitty's physician and tiring lover, who likewise ministers to Oliver, without, however, revealing to him the incurability of his illness. Both Packard and his sluttish Kitty, and Talbot and his undeluded but still loving Lucy, have marital difficulties, Packard even planning an imminent divorce. Only Millicent's down-to-earth sister, Hattie, and her party-hating husband seem relatively unscathed. The various secretaries and domestics are, for the most part, equally riven or scheming. And two hours before the dinner, the cook's prized appetizer is comically totaled.

Death and the Depression lurk in the corners of this otherwise airy comedy, adding a spiky further dimension. The dialogue alternatingly sparkles or darkens as various nooses, comic or otherwise, steadily tighten. The production is flawlessly directed by Gerald Gutierrez, who elicits a splendidly saturnine cameo performance even from his own lapdog.

John Lee Beatty provides luscious scenery that converges on us from all directions; Catherine Zuber's costumes are opulent with fine ironic undertones, and David Weiner's lighting supplies the ultimate sheen. Robert Waldman's apt music may be just a touch overloud.

From the huge, uniformly impeccable cast, I must, however unfairly, single out Christine Ebersole's beleaguered Millicent, Marian Seldes's outré Carlotta, Kevin Conway's malevolent Packard, Emily Skinner's slatternly Kitty, Enid Graham's outwitted chambermaid, and Joanne Camp's long-suffering Lucy, first among equals.

I have liked one play by Christopher Shinn, disliked another, and am of two minds about What Didn't Happen. It takes place in front of an upstate New York country house, owned in 1999 by Scott, a young writer, and in 1993 by Dave, a middle-aged novelist. The play shuttles between those times, gradually revealing how an untoward happening in '93 has sour fallout in '99. Conversely, it argues -- from a recollection of the crapulous novelist Peter -- that a potentially analogous event made things better by not happening.

There are too many strands going here, either parallel and thus not really connecting or entangled but without proper resolution. In '93, Dave was an unofficial mentor to Scott, a bright but delinquent Columbia student in the class of Alan, a psychiatrist and professor, in whose course on the psychology of Hamlet Scott first plagiarized a paper, then reneged on a promised rewrite. Alan, too, shows up for a '93 dinner at Dave's, still smarting from his wife's death three years earlier and from students more interested in cruising the Web than in reading an assigned text.

Dave has acquired the isolated house to write an effortful novel about underprivileged minorities, about whom the cynical Peter tells him he knows nothing. Dave's girlfriend, Elaine, also visiting from their city apartment, is a no-longer-young actress complaining about losing out, despite greater experience, to younger ones favored by immature directors. There is also a very young local boy who works for Scott and is obsessed with Jaime, Scott's unseen, disturbed daughter by his unseen painter ex-wife. In '99, Scott is having a bumpy affair with Emily, his co-writer on a teleplay.

There are enough good but embryonic stories here for several plays, too many for one. Michael Wilson has adroitly directed a competent cast, in which only Chris Noth's Peter is a delectable standout.

Neil Labute has a reckless, bordering on feckless, talent as a writer and provocateur, taking as much pleasure burrowing into messy sex lives as a toddler with a toy spade into a sandlot. Gleeful nastiness has pervaded and polluted both his plays and movies, and, sad to say, made him a cult figure. That he is a Mormon, a professor, and a paterfamilias adds spice to his mischief.

The Mercy Seat is a two-hander about Abby, 45, an executive, and Ben, 33, who works for her, has a wife and daughters, but conducts a clandestine affair with Abby, though with sex only from the rear or orally. She was just kneeling to him when September 11 hit, not far beyond her loft windows. But for their dalliance, Ben would have been lost in the catastrophe, and, assumed dead, can escape with Abby into a new life together. Abby agrees, but insists that he tell his family the truth, which he is loath to do. The 100-minute play revolves around this conflict but ignores that for the pair to vanish tracelessly is rather less possible than they or the author think.

LaBute's writing doggedly stretches out, embroiders, and reiterates where a little concision would be manna from heaven. It gloats over sexual idiosyncrasies and man-woman power skirmishes but turns perfunctory when stooping to other matters. Sporadic clevernesses, even insight, pop up like signed first editions in a secondhand bookstore, but the shadow of puerile titillation falls over everything. LaBute himself has directed cannily in Neil Patel's evocative décor, but it is hard to leave without the feeling of having been had, front and rear.

Tommy Tune has it all: singing, dancing, acting, looks, and oodles of effortless charm. Endlessly tall and eternally young (pushing 64 but looking half that), he scores with White Tie and Tails. There is something about a six-foot-six man dancing with consummate grace that no one shorter can replicate with quite the same effect. Backed by three Manhattan Rhythm Kings (burly Brian Nalepka, bald Hal Shane, boyish Marc Kessler) and Michael Biagi conducting a rousing sixteen-piece band, this seems -- no, is -- as big as anything on Broadway. Twenty numbers in masterly orchestrations, gloriously lighted by Natasha Katz, along with cunning projections by Wendall K. Harrington, in the nifty new Little Shubert Theatre -- here are 90 minutes you fervently wish would never end.

On revisiting La Bohème with a different cast, I did not change my opinion but was struck by the Mimi of Wei Huang. Somewhat slow to warm up, she became terrific in the second half, singing beautifully and acting very movingly. Even her coughing was done with conviction but admirable restraint.


Dinner at Eight
Revival of the Kaufman and Ferber play, staged by Gerald Gutierrez.

What Didn't Happen
New play by Christopher Shinn.

The Mercy Seat
New play written and directed by Neil LaBute.

White Tie and Tails
Musical revue starring Tommy Tune, with the Manhattan Rhythm Kings.


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