Danish Gem Becomes Awful Play- What on Earth Happened?

When I first saw the 1998 Danish film Festen—now at the Music Box Theater in its prestigious play version from London—my excited, immediate reaction was twofold:

On the one hand, I thought the brilliantly unsettling Danish movie might make a great play. This staggering story of a family reunion, I thought, is just what we need in the theater. Every actor in the film was exceptional too, even perfect. But there was no reason to think that fine stage actors couldn’t equal them.

On the other hand, I didn’t see how any English play version could possibly live up to the film, which had riveted and disturbed me. What made the experience even more memorable is that I first came across the film by farcical accident: I’d gone to see another movie at my local cineplex and strolled into the wrong theater by mistake. Yet within five minutes, I was utterly hooked.

A family gathers for a banquet in a grand house to celebrate the 60th birthday of a beloved, formidable patriarch. ( Festen is Danish for “celebration.”) I took it all as quite normal at first, as all family gatherings are quite normal—provided that what might be discovered beneath the complaisant surface is never revealed.

The Festen family includes Christian, the quiet, sullen eldest son, whose twin sister—we learn—has died. Christian’s surviving sister, Helene, is the family dropout, and their younger brother Michael is the nasty second-rater who’s unhappily married. There’s also the paterfamilias’ wife, an icy beauty, dotty grandparents and many guests. And there’s a certain forced bonhomie, an undercurrent that all might not be well—but nothing obvious.

Then everything changes during the banquet when Christian taps his glass and stands to make the first toast to his father. The substance of the chilling speech—which starts out like any affectionate memory of childhood—is that the father sexually abused his children.

Festen is a tragedy of keeping up appearances that unravels before our wide eyes. The celebration staggers on in denial and disbelief, like a drunken nightmare that somehow plugs into us all until we’re left as unnerved and wrecked as the damaged family before us.

I’m afraid it isn’t just that the Festen on Broadway fails to live up to the film. It simply doesn’t come close. From the outset, David Eldridge, the adaptor, and director Rufus Norris—who also staged the London production—have blundered badly. Their set-up is artily wrong. The play opens in self-conscious shadow and blackness. What happened to the celebration? The stark set itself is an empty space with a wall of oppressive black brick. It’s as if we’re in some kind of prison yard. (A symbolic prison of the mind, no doubt.) But all this obvious spookiness—accompanied by ghostly entrances and exits, if you please—pre-empts everything that should naturally unfold.

So does the echoing sound of a child giggling as she splashes in a bath. And what, considering the play’s unspeakable theme, could be more blatant than that? But when a mysterious letter is conveniently found hidden in a ceiling lamp (of all places), the die is cast.

There’s fatally no sense of the apparently normal. (There’s no atmosphere of any guest rooms, either—only a cumbersome center-stage bed on which far too much action takes place.) Mr. Norris handles the banquet scenes well, though not the rowdy group songs and chants that should turn sinister. The tone is all wrong: Everyone should be on the edge of a precipice, including us. But we’re not, and more to the point, they’re not.

It’s staggering. Almost everyone in the cast is either bewilderingly off form or plain wrong for the role. I’m reliably told that the London cast was riveting (and disguised the play’s flaws). But there’s no emotional connection or even conviction within the mixed bag that calls itself an ensemble here.

Larry Bryggman is unable to convey the blustering nastiness of a tyrannical patriarch—least of all any concealed panic. There’s no fire in him, no nuance. He mostly smiles his way through, as if to be merely stunned were enough. But then, Michael Hayden’s Christian is merely immobilized, stolid, dull—without subtext. He’s a limited actor at the best of times. TV star Julianna Margulies fares little better as Helene and plays two notes: histrionic or blandly calm. Jeremy Sisto as the failure, Michael, has been allowed to go completely over the top from start to finish. He leaves the excellent Carrie Preston as his coarse wife nothing to do but shout louder. Let’s leave the still-beautiful Ali MacGraw as the self-denying matriarch out of this.

This woeful stage production of Festen has managed to reduce a riveting tragedy to a mediocre Gothic melodrama, a farce, a shadowy, distant memory of the real thing.

See the film.

Wittgenstein’s Wisdom

A brief word of thanks, at least, for a wonderfully acted, awfully underestimated play. Show People, by the immensely gifted Paul Weitz, is a welcome, unexpectedly frothy comedy and affectionate valentine to theater. Those humorless killjoys called critics whom I’ve read on the play dismissed it as too insubstantial. But wasn’t it Wittgenstein who said that you can’t ask a light soufflé to be Eugene O’Neill?

It was. You can ask a soufflé to be Noel Coward. And what might be called the postmodern Cowardesque is what Mr. Weitz has conjured up in his drawing-room comedy at the Second Stage Theatre. There’s even a deliberately old-fashioned proscenium—a reminder of another theater age—framing Reidi Eitiger’s ultramodern Montauk beach house with the faux ocean in the background and the burning logs in the video fireplace.

It was when one of the actors warmed his hands on the video fire that I was sold on this witty piece. If we want to get fancy, it’s about the nature of reality and illusion. But let’s not. Show People is about happy families and those poor, underemployed things called actors.

Mr. Weitz’s happily absurd twists and turns of the plot—which I ought not reveal—spring from a loopily tantalizing premise. Two elderly, unemployed professional actors, Jerry and Marnie, have been hired by a wealthy young man to pretend to be his loving parents.

There! I was laughing from the start. Tom has hired the nice parents in order to impress his violin-playing fiance, Natalie. You need first-rate actors to play second-rate actors, and we’re blessed with Debra Monk and Lawrence Pressman as Tom’s frequently bewildered parents. Ty Burrell and Judy Greer complete the excellent quartet. As for Show People’s playwright, Mr. Weitz, he appears to be making it up as he goes along, which is what playwrights usually do.

Sometimes it shows—and, to be sure, there’s more than a touch of Pirandello (with a dash of Edward Albee thrown in). But as I see it, Mr. Weitz and his very accomplished director, Peter Askin, have given us a smashing light comedy that’s essentially about theater. Thank goodness Mr. Weitz takes romantic, ridiculous pleasure in it—as we do in his delightful Show People.

Danish Gem Becomes Awful Play- What on Earth Happened?