Friday, May 30, 2003

Tell me lies: Hiding from truth at dinner

Published in the Portland Phoenix

How far will you go to keep up appearances? Or, more precisely, what would you do to keep others from popping the balloon of your illusions about yourself? Are you, like an unseen English peer and his wife in Dinner at Eight, " just like everybody else, only plainer? "

In the play’s world, everyone knows the troubles the others have seen, but don’t want them to know they know. Dinner at Eight peers into the world of how the other — well, not quite half, so let’s say two percent — live. Society women swoon over their engagement calendars, hoping to stay near the top of the social kettle. Their servants aspire to higher goals and better lives, while neighbors and lesser relations know, and keep, their places.

Millicent Jordan (Helen Brock) is impressed by the superficial — say, those who have an office in the Empire State Building (no matter how big, nor what its business) — and wants others to know about her connections, however tenuous, with the rich and famous of New York and even England.

Here is the stuff of gossip columns: One businessman is trying to protect his family company from going under, while another is scheming to take it over; a doctor is having an affair with a whiny trophy wife; an actor trying valiantly to reclaim the star status of his youth; a below-stairs romance is blossoming despite a jealous co-worker and the prior marriage of one partner.

The stories are intertwined cleverly, with strong voices coming through to make sure the audience isn’t lost, and with a more audience-like element on stage in the bodies of Hattie and Ed Loomis (Susan Norris and Jeff Kaplan). The Loomises are quite happy with their lot as middle-class working people, and bemused by the pretenses of their relations. They are also certainly not about to argue over a free meal, even if they were a last-minute addition to the guest list.

The play is a comedy, though a sad one, with unrequited love, lost hope, and true desperation mixed in with the laughably superficial concerns of Millicent.

The casting is genius, with each person selected for his or her strengths and pushed to perform them. And most cast members have more than one part, in a slightly different stratum of society. The recurring faces in different scenarios lends additional power to the theme, " there but for the grace of (insert name of deity) go I. " Brock herself takes a social demotion from flitty rich housewife to nurse, while the man who plays a butler (Steve Erickson) also plays a hotel bellboy.

Of further note is Tim Robinson’s performance. He stepped in to fill the role of Dan Packard when Bruce Allen took ill and was hospitalized a day before the show was to open. Despite still acting with script in hand, Robinson has excellent stage presence and is able to remain a strong performer.

It is fitting that this play should be presented so charmingly in the rough, arty space at the Players’ Ring theater, a historic building long past its original prime, but now gunning hard for a rebirth as an arts and cultural space. The building has no hidden aspirations, instead celebrating its past and its future.

There is an undercurrent of self-reference in the play itself, both to the world of theater, and to the Ring, mainly by happenstance. Perhaps this is the reason for the selection of this script over others that could have been more engaging.

In one scene, an aging widow (Anne F. Rehner) wants to sell a theater on 42nd Street but can’t find an interested buyer, to which a failing businessman (Roland Goodbody) replies that he has long wanted to become a playwright. In another scene, a doctor (Paul J. Bell) predicts the fortunes of the Ring’s current air-conditioning-fund drive, saying " in the future, buildings will be artificially cooled. "

It is too bad that while the pieces are all strong, from acting to costumes and set to lights, the sum of the parts really doesn’t sing the way this play could, or any other play could with this cast. It is possible — and understandable — that everyone was distracted by worry for Allen, who does not have any life-threatening condition, we are assured. But director Rachael Burr should have spent more time on an overall direction for the play than in making sure its details were taken care of.

In fact, the play as a whole is truly remarkable only for its three-hour length, thanks in part to protracted set changes (some nearly three minutes!). Perhaps this production itself wants a higher station in life but could not find a way there this time around.

Dinner at Eight
Written by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. Directed by Rachael M. Burr. With Helen Brock, Roland Goodbody, Dann Anthony Maurno, and Anne F. Rehner. Theatre on the Rocks, at the Players’ Ring, through June 8. Call (603) 436-8123.