Just before the final scene of the Lincoln Center Theater's gorgeous production of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's "Dinner at Eight," a spotlight picks up a glittering chandelier descending in the darkness. Given what chandeliers have signified in New York theater in the last 15 years, I should have recoiled in horror. It is a sign of how spellbinding Gerald Gutierrez's production is that I found the moment oddly thrilling. To begin with, this chandelier has no murderous intent. It will simply light the long-awaited dinner party. Its slow, graceful descent symbolizes the disintegrating aristocratic New York into which only one of the characters fits - Oliver Jordan, in whose townhouse the party takes place in 1932. Jordan is an aging WASP whose family fortune is in jeopardy. If the play had a sequel, it would be about how so fine a man copes without money. His wife, Millicent, we can surmise from her very middle-class sister Hattie, is snobbish because she has moved up in the world and therefore is nervous about how to play her role. It probably betrays our own snobbishness that we take such pleasure in the way her pretentious plans fall apart. All her guests have agendas, and clearly if Jordan were not rich or well born he would not fit into any of them, which gives an underlying poignancy to the comedy about people struggling to keep their masks in place. The production has been impeccably cast, starting with the Jordans. James Rebhorn conveys gentility and privilege with effortless grace. Christine Ebersole is brilliant as his ambitious wife. As her plans falter, she delivers a tantrum every bit as powerful as "Rose's Turn."
Ann McDonough is perfect as her down-to-earth, wisecracking sister, as is Brian Reddy as her blustery husband. John Dossett is suave as a society doctor, and Joanne Camp is touching as his worldly wise wife. Byron Jennings is elegant and restrained as a vain, washed-up actor, a role that could have brought a less skillful performer to grief. Samantha Soule plays his helpless conquest beautifully. From the second we hear Kevin Conway's bellowing voice offstage, we understand him perfectly as the ruthless businessman who is destroying Jordan's world. Ditto Emily Skinner as his trashy wife, who helps us understand the principle why ration vulgarity when you have so much to share? Marian Seldes is delicious as a fading actress. I wish I could single out everyone, but I was especially taken with the four who attend the actor's fall: Joe Grifasi as his weary agent, Peter Maloney as a testy producer, Rhys Coiro as a canny bellboy and David Wohl as a poised hotel manager. Gutierrez has directed this huge cast with extraordinary finesse. He has figured out how to make an asset out of even the play's dated aspects. John Lee Beatty's sets are all sumptuous; my favorite is the kitchen in the absolute right shade of Depression green, hauntingly lit by David Weiner. Catherine Zuber's costumes are similarly breathtaking and totally in character. This "Dinner at Eight" is an evening of sheer pleasure.
Ah, the good old days, when a playwright could cheerfully submit a script with a cast of 27 actors, 11 understudies, four musicians and seven changes of set. And, if necessary, a singing bird in a pear tree.
Nowadays, only a worthy non-profit theater, with seemingly millions in subsidies, could readily embrace such extravagance, and the Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont Theater does just that with "Dinner at Eight," a so-so play from the '30s that's as contemporary as an elaborate cuckoo clock.
George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's drama is really a series of interlocked playlets - some humorous, some melodramatic, but mostly pseudo-witty.
"Dinner at Eight" begins when society hostess Millicent Jordan (Christine Ebersole) discovers, to her delight, that an ancient but rich aristocratic pair from England have accepted an invitation to dinner.
Millicent spends the next week arranging the dinner party and inviting various friends and acquaintances, whom we soon learn more about.
Unfortunately, they're all rather uninteresting, like clichés that have lost their click.
There is Millicent's husband, Oliver (James Rebhorn), who, unbeknownst to Millicent, is suffering from a bad heart and a worse bank account.
Then there is her engaged daughter, Paula (Samantha Soule), who, unbeknownst to Millicent, is conducting a stormy love affair with a washed-up actor, Larry Renault (Byron Jennings).
She has also invited Oliver's business associate, who, unbeknownst to Oliver, is about to run him out of business - the vulgar Dan Packard (Kevin Conway) and his even more vulgar wife, Kitty (Emily Skinner), who, unbenownst to Dan, is having an affair with her house-calling physician, Dr. J.W. Talbot (John Dossett), who's also been invited along with his wife, Lucy (Joanne Camp).
Add to the mix the faded actress Carlotta Vance (Marian Seldes) and a group of servants whose lives are as muddled as the people they serve, and that, more or less, is the play.
The entire cast overact magnificiently - naturalism, or even restraint, is not an option here.
Ebersole is a delight as the hostess with the leastest, and Conway, Skinner and Seldes have enormous fun in the play's juiciest roles.
Jennings gives probably the best performance as the broke screen star with the eroding profile.
Director Gerald Gutierrez shoves the play along with deft alacrity, but the triumphs of evening are the stylish sets by John Lee Beatty and the dead-accurate costumes by Dorothy Zuber, who almost satirically demonstrates why hats went out of style.
It's not a bad play - just commonplace and trivial, and not what one would have hoped for from Lincoln Center.
If you plan to spend time on a sinking ship, it might as well be the Titanic. The main characters in George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's ''Dinner at Eight,'' which has been given a sumptuous shop window of a revival by Lincoln Center Theater, are headed straight for icebergs in their lives. It is, after all, the height of the Depression, and fortunes tumble daily. But at least these endangered sybarites will be going down in style, with silks and furs to fend off mortal chills and crystal chandeliers to light their paths to doom.
From ''Oedipus Rex'' to The National Enquirer, watching the rich and mighty get theirs has been a perennially popular spectator sport, providing the satisfactions of both plain old Schadenfreude and keyhole glimpses of upper-crust opulence. Gerald Gutierrez's staging of ''Dinner at Eight,'' which opened last night at the Vivian Beaumont, caters to such tastes with varied results.
The production doesn't entirely revitalize a play that smells distinctly of embalming fluid. But thanks to John Lee Beatty, who has created a luscious succession of luxuriously detailed interiors; the costume designer Catherine Zuber, who has a gourmet's eye for glitz; and several sparkling performances, notably from Christine Ebersole and Emily Skinner, this show appropriately serves up the mixed pleasures of an old guard dinner party. The guests may not always scintillate, but you can always sit back and enjoy the furniture.
That was certainly a large part of the appeal of ''Dinner at Eight'' when it first opened on Broadway in 1932. Depression-era audiences were treated not only to such voyeuristic vignettes as a has-been movie star committing suicide, but also to some of the most lavish sets (by Livingston Platt) ever mounted on Broadway, presented in swift sequence courtesy of a newfangled revolving stage. Though some critics were troubled by the unseemliness of such lavish display in the age of bread lines, ''Dinner at Eight'' was more than an escapist romp with the rich. Kaufman and Ferber, whose previous collaborations included the lighter-hearted ''Royal Family,'' outlined their characters' glittering lives in ominous darkness. In The New York Times, Brooks Atkinson wrote that the play's authors ''have managed to remove contentment from the face of this macadamized land.''
Today ''Dinner at Eight'' is remembered less for its stinging social commentary than for the all-star cinematic omnibus it became via MGM, with a cast that included Jean Harlow at her sleekest and John Barrymore at his most sodden. Yet it's impossible to watch the current Lincoln Center production without noticing some disturbing contemporary parallels.
You're likely to shiver in recognition, for example, when one character says, in a moment of anxious chitchat, ''Goodness knows where any of us will be this time next year,'' and another answers heartily, ''Oh, America will come out on top.'' And how familiar does this fragment of cocktail conversation sound? ''They say it's getting warmer every winter. . . . They say there'll be palm trees growing where the Empire State Building is.''
It takes more than topical correspondences, however, to make an old-fashioned play smell fresh. And there's definitely a mustiness even in the solidly assembled bones of ''Dinner at Eight.'' In following the lives of an assortment of characters in the week before they convene for the party of the title, this comic melodrama positively groans with anticipatory irony.
The troubles, large and small, that will eventually strike the play's characters can be seen from a great distance, like trains speeding across flatlands. It's a show that has audience members murmuring or chuckling in self-congratulation as they identify reversals of fortune to come.
When a prosperous-seeming businessman suddenly clutches his stomach and is asked, ''What's the matter there -- got a pain?'' a black cloud labeled ''R.I.P.'' seems to hover over his head. And when an exquisitely molded lobster aspic is prominently placed on a kitchen table during a moment of downstairs altercation, you imagine that dish on the floor long before it falls.
As the Drama Dept.'s revival of the Kaufman-Lardner play ''June Moon'' demonstrated almost five years ago, it's possible to find a rejuvenating emotional current in works thought of as frozen period pieces. And at least Mr. Gutierrez doesn't make the mistake of letting his cast go over the top with exaggeratedly stylized performances. Everyone -- even Marian Seldes in the ham-tempting role of a retired grande dame of the stage -- sticks to a naturalistic approach.
At the same time there is little real tension or urgency among the characters, and only a few performances engage you beyond a surface level. To tell the truth, a little more melodramatic vigor would be welcome from time to time.
As Larry Renault, an alcoholic, washed-up actor (a role tailor-made for John Barrymore), the dashing Byron Jennings seems entirely too fit and subdued to convey the impression of a human train wreck. And for once you can't help wishing that Ms. Seldes, who stepped in when Dorothy Loudon became ill, would give freer rein to her natural extravagance of gesture.
James Rebhorn as the ailing businessman, Samantha Soule as his headstrong daughter, Enid Graham as a romantic parlor maid and John Dossett as a philandering doctor all give perfectly credible performances. But unless they're actually talking, you tend to forget they're onstage.
The same cannot be said for Ms. Skinner, who boldly claims for herself the role immortally played by Harlow, that of Kitty Packard, the tarty wife of a newly rich vulgarian from Montana. Nasal-voiced and extravagantly voluptuous, Ms. Skinner's Kitty also exudes the cold-eyed determination of a survivor who may be short on etiquette but understands power. She and her husband, enjoyably played as a cowboy Napoleon by Kevin Conway, indeed seem destined to inherit the earth.
Other performers who manage to strike a fine balance between period flavor and emotional immediacy include Joanne Camp, wrapped protectively in gentle archness as the doctor's ever patient wife, and Joe Grifasi, as Renault's crude but well-meaning agent.
But it's Ms. Ebersole's Millicent Jordan, the pampered, put-upon hostess who can't see further than her next dinner party, who gives the play its most vital human spark. As she showed in her Tony-winning performance in ''42nd Street,'' Ms. Ebersole has an instinctive feeling for Deco-age style and can render it without the distortions of camp.
More than anyone else in ''Dinner at Eight,'' she creates a character who seems compellingly shaped by her time, place and economic status. Whether efficiently rattling off invitations on the phone or exploding in a sublime moment of exasperation as her guest list falls apart, Ms. Ebersole fully summons the sense of a woman who lives completely and blindly by an iron-cast, circumscribed social code. She has the unconditional courage of her shallowness.
As fine as Ms. Ebersole is, she isn't the real star of ''Dinner at Eight.'' That distinction belongs to Mr. Beatty's sets: all delicious studies in conspicuous consumption, with enough ormolu, crystal, brocades and rich wood panels to inspire a revolution. Even a doctor's office becomes a treat for the eye when a door opens to reveal a flash of whimsically patterned wallpaper in the corridor.
There is also the cool dazzle of the elegantly appointed dinner table, a rhapsody in white and silver, an island of light on a dark stage when the audience enters the theater. It's an eloquent symbol for the tension between anxiety and luxury that makes ''Dinner at Eight'' something more than a vintage curiosity.
Don't be fooled by the smiling faces, smart clothes and jovial repartee now on display at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater.
In the revival of Dinner at Eight that opened last week at this Broadway venue, appearances are almost always deceiving. Look past the breezy, elegant veneer of this Depression-era satire by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber and you'll find a web of deceit, denial and bad luck.
Some of the spiders belong to an upper-class existing on life support, though they are too proud, complacent or terrified to admit that their social and financial edge is rapidly dulling.
Take Millicent Jordan, whose husband is about to see his fortune usurped by a nouveau riche ne'er-do-well. Played with expert drollness by Christine Ebersole, this society matron is a meticulous control freak for whom planning parties and dishing about peers is both a full-time job and a raison d'etre. Little wonder that Millie's hapless but good-hearted spouse, Oliver, who is endearingly played by James Rebhorn, seems intimidated by her.
But the darkest moments in Dinner involve interlopers who have struggled to join the Jordans' elite ranks, with mixed results. Playing a past-it silent-film heartthrob, Byron Jennings devolves from a delusional buffoon into a pathetic zombie. Kevin Conway turns in an equally astute, disturbing performance as Dan Packard, the dirt-kicking corporate cowboy who aspires to grab the reins of wealth from the more genteel and fundamentally decent likes of Oliver Jordan.
Director Gerald Gutierrez wisely doesn't underline the already painfully obvious parallels between Packard and the white-collar criminals who have emerged in today's troubled economy. Unfortunately, Gutierrez's scrupulously authentic production does emphasize the extent to which the mores and manners parodied by Kaufman and Ferber have grown dated.
This staleness is exacerbated by a few stiff or cloying performances. Simon Jutras is a tad too unctuous as a womanizing servant, and Emily Skinner, the amply endowed actress cast as Packard's spoiled wife, appears determined to swallow as much scenery as she can digest.
Other supporting actors fare better, among them Joanne Camp as the sensible wife of a philandering doctor and the superb Marian Seldes, who has a field day as flamboyant former starlet Carlotta Vance.
Praise is also due Catherine Zuber's sleek costumes and John Lee Beatty's dazzling sets, which capture the baroque haughtiness and defiant decadence of the world these fading stars and social climbers inhabit.
It's a world that amuses for a while, but you'll be grateful to escape it before the walls crumble.