As one of the main characters says midway through "Festen," the English import based on a Danish film that has arrived on Broadway with an American cast: "Welcome to this curious birthday party."
"Curious" is not the half of it. Think "unlikely," "unsavory" and, at times, "unwatchable" because of some flagrant miscasting. In other words, "Festen," playing at the Music Box Theatre, is no cause for celebration.
Despite its spare, elegant design, "Festen," adapted by David Eldridge from the movie by Thomas Vinterberg, Mogens Rukov and Bo Hr. Hansen, finds its stilted story in domestic chaos. We are at the 60th birthday celebration of a wealthy patriarch, Helge, who is being feted by his family and friends.
As toasts and good cheer tumble out, Helge's eldest son, Christian, reveals that his father sexually molested him and his twin sister, a young woman who only recently committed suicide. Talk about putting a damper on things.
Despite the horrific revelation, the party goes on. But not without further recriminations, a couple rounds of fisticuffs and a fierce if unsatisfying confrontation between father and son.
"Festen" has opened in New York carrying a suitcase full of good reviews from London, so expectations were high. Yet its homegrown cast, which features such actors as Larry Bryggman, Michael Hayden, Julianna Margulies, Jeremy Sisto and, in her Broadway debut, Ali MacGraw, proves to be a handicap.
They bring a variety of open, all-American acting styles (and in the case of MacGraw, not much nuance at all) to a parade of Scandinavian characters who are pencil-thin in depth. Only Hayden, as the deeply troubled Christian, manages to make something out of the meager details that Eldridge's script provides.
MacGraw, her hair swept back and wearing a rich red gown, looks regal. But her role is minuscule and so is the impression she makes, particularly in an ineffective second-act speech in which she chastises her three children.
Margulies, the remaining sister, seems to be playing a brassy, tough-minded New York career woman. And Sisto, best known for portraying the demented Billy Chenoweth on HBO's acclaimed "Six Feet Under," does an even more hyper version of that role here. He portrays the volatile younger brother who browbeats his own wife and hurls racial insults at his sister's black boyfriend.
Bryggman, too, a fine actor in such plays as "Proof' and the recent revival of "Twelve Angry Men," appears stymied by the play's most enigmatic part, the father. It's almost a passive role and Bryggman is never able to bring the man to life.
Curiously, there seems to be more vitality in some of the play's smallest supporting roles, particularly the servants, portrayed by Stephen Kunken, Diane Davis and C.J. Wilson, than in the major players. It's quite telling watching them watch their employer and his family - with a faint sneer of contempt.
Director Rufus Norris, who oversaw the London production, does the same here with sporadic, often confusing results. Scenes overlap, often taking place simultaneously on the same set, as the histrionics are ramped up to highest degree of agitation.
The production design, sets by Ian MacNeil, costumes by Joan Wadge and lighting by Jean Kalman, has a simplicity that the rest of the evening lacks. A long dining-room table glides effortlessly from the back of the stage to the front with surprising grace. It's about the only note of tranquility you will find in this overwrought dysfunctional-family melodrama.
There's nothing wrong with "Festen" that couldn't be solved by having it performed in Danish with English subtitles.
Then we might imagine that something really deep, along the lines of Ingmar Bergman, was going on. Hearing the script in an assortment of Anglo-Saxon accents, it's hard to take seriously.
"Festen," which marks the Broadway debut of Ali MacGraw, is based on the 1998 Danish film "Festen" (or "The Celebration"), which was made according to the rules of the realist "Dogma" collective.
The play depicts the 60th birthday party of the patriarch of an upper-crust Danish family. In the course of the festivities, his oldest son, Christian, reveals an ugly family secret.
In a better-structured play, this confrontation might have some impact, but here the secret is repeated and embroidered so often that what should be shocking becomes tedious.
The loose way the plot develops and the abundance of minor characters suggest a group improvisation, in which every member has to contribute something and there is no tactful way to weed out contributions that don't matter.
With clever cutting and camera closeups, this might work as a film. But onstage, all of its "shocks," including the arrival of an African character, seem cliched.
This production of "Festen" was first done in a tiny London theater, where perhaps the feeling of intimacy made the action involving. Nothing of the sort happens here.
Michael Hayden, as the troubled Christian, is strong at conveying inner torments finally bursting forth. Larry Bryggman has a sinister steeliness as his oblivious father.
As his wife, MacGraw looks great, though she is frumpily dressed. She does not suggest a woman who has weathered many storms, as her all-American accent undercuts the idea of worldliness that should underline the character.
Jeremy Sisto and Julianna Marguiles play an unhappily married couple who have a stormy scene and then fade into the background.
Ian MacNeil's sets are simple, putting the emphasis on the actors. Jean Kalman's striking lighting gives the effect of closeups, adding some drama to the largely strained proceedings.
Plays about skeletons jumping out of family closets were once startling. "Festen's" revelations seem merely musty.
David Eldridge's dining-room tragedy-comedy "Festen" -that's Danish for "celebration" - is an odd duck.
Carefully, indeed brilliantly, coached by the director, Rufus Norris, the production that opened last night at the Music Box flaps its histrionic wings to some major effect, but it remains odd and it remains a duck.
Based on the 1988 Dogme film and play by Danish writers Thomas Vinterberg, Mogens Rukov and Bo Hr. Hansen, it describes a ghastly, tell-all 60th birthday party set in a hotel somewhere in the Danish countryside.
The birthday boy is Helge (Larry Bryggman), owner not only of the hotel but a hotel chain. For this celebration, the hotel has been taken over by family and chosen guests.
The film featured a larger hotel and a big guest list, but in this dramatization, the latter has been cut back drastically. Along with the rich patriarch himself are his wife, Else (Ali MacGraw), a couple of sons, a daughter and daughter-in-law, a granddaughter, a grandfather (of unstated provenance), plus a few friends and servants.
This change of focus seems to have affected the dynamics of the drama: No longer placed against any kind of public background, it's now strictly a family concern.
And, like Hamlet's tribe, this is one dysfunctional family. For after the clan has rather untidily gathered together, and the dinner party gets going - presided over by an oily emcee, Helmut (Christopher Evan Welch), Helge's German head of operations - the eldest son, Christian (Michael Hayden), makes a calmly horrendous speech accusing his father of almost unutterable sins.
Is the old man guilty or has Christian, a restaurateur in Paris, merely fantasized it?
It's on this question of guilt or innocence that the crux of the play rests, and it is the drama's major flaw that we in the audience are really never much in doubt.
When the play was staged in London - to considerable critical acclaim - it first played in the tiny, almost claustrophobic Almeida Theatre, where the immediacy of that awesome family gathering would be far more potent than in a Broadway house.
That said, Norris, the original London director, and his mostly excellent New York cast do the best they can, and in the second act the play does work up a powerful head of steam.
Bryggman, looking like a small rodent at bay, is superb as Heige, and Hayden's whistle-blowing Christian, who may not be blowing the right whistle, seems both determined and disturbed. As his sister, Julianna Margulies (best known for TV's "ER) takes the play's high point and delivers it in a marvelously emotional torrent.
The rest of the cast is generally fine, particularly Welch as the unctuous manager. MacGraw makes only a small impression until her dignified ending, and Jeremy Sisto, as Christian's rebellious younger brother Michael, takes the role's opportunity for overacting and runs with it.
It appears that London found "Festen" shocking. Here, it's interesting, at times fascinating, but shocking, no. The only time the audience seemed stunned was when Michael hurled racial epithets at a black guest.
Home is a black hole in "Festen," the intensely staged, indifferently acted domestic shocker that opened last night at the Music Box Theater. As conceived by the director Rufus Norris and a design team of inspired austerity, David Eldridge's adaptation of a 1998 Danish film about a family reunion seems to exist entirely on the edge of an unconditional darkness, a magnetic maw just waiting to suck you in. Rendered in a sea of shadow in which light feels wan and provisional, this is home as it appears in the most unforgiving nightmares of adults about their childhoods — a place that saps will, courage and any semblance of an autonomous self.
Such, in any case, were my impressions after watching "Festen" a year and a half ago in London, where it was enjoying the enviably fashionable status of the play that had to be seen that season by anyone who cared about theater. It wasn't that Mr. Eldridge's lucid, efficient reworking of Thomas Vinterberg's movie of the same title was in itself so compelling. As dramatic literature, "Festen" is merely a lesser descendant of more titanic dramas of homecoming by Pinter, Shepard and O'Neill. But Mr. Norris's production was so uncompromising and poetic in its spareness that it tapped into primal territory where the script alone didn't go.
Here, at last, was a play inspired by a film that was unconditionally and triumphantly theatrical. And when I heard that "Festen" was Broadway-bound, I figured that Mr. Norris's mise-en-scène was pretty much guaranteed to work the same magic once more. After all, it wasn't the individual performers I remembered from London; it was the landscape of shadow and light that defined their characters' fears.
There is a lesson to be learned from such assumptions: Never, ever underestimate the role of actors in any theatrical work. In appearance, the Broadway "Festen" is as unnervingly stark as it ever was. But its darkness is not the same irresistible force. How could it be when the characters onstage are no longer in thrall to it?
Embodied by an eclectic roster of the famous and demifamous from screen (Ali MacGraw, in her Broadway debut), television (Julianna Margulies and Jeremy Sisto) and stage (Larry Bryggman and Michael Hayden), the unhappy family of "Festen" now registers the approximate tension and testiness of vain people suffering from a collective bad-hair day. It's as if some well-meaning, misguided grown-up had walked in and switched on the lights in a blacked-out nursery that had been set up, with considerable care, as a spookhouse.
Reduced to synoptic bones, "Festen" is much like one of those trauma-survivor scripts often found on women's cable channels: a grown child returns home to accuse a parent, in flamboyant style, of life-warping behavior from years earlier. The plot then progresses, as if according to some therapeutic guidebook, through phases of denial (by the other parent and siblings), explosion, acceptance and transcendence.
The accuser, in this case, is Mr. Hayden's character, Christian; the parent is his father, Helge, a formidable restaurateur who is celebrating his 60th birthday. The memory of Christian's twin sister, who killed herself, forms the third point in the plot's central triangle. Ms. MacGraw plays Helge's mostly (and mercifully) silent wife. And Ms. Margulies and Mr. Sisto are Christian's surviving, screwed-up siblings.
What sets Mr. Eldridge's script apart from the usual dysfunction-of-the-week movie is their use of Danish rituals of revelry — the toasts, speeches, songs and games that become perverse conduits for confrontation and evasion. The childishness of silly commemorative ditties, of anecdotes about youthful misbehavior and of bouncy physical activity all suddenly, in this context, seem sinister instead of joyous or innocent. A sense of poisoned high spirits perfumes the air like a noxious laughing gas. And the titters that erupt from the audience arise from discomfort in the presence of a cruel absurdity.
At least, that should be the way the show works. But the painful uneasiness of the cast members here seems to emanate less from their characters' awareness that something's rotten in this home in Denmark than from the sense of performers adrift in uncharted seas.
The elements of technical stagecraft, as devised by the brilliant designer Ian McNeil (with essential lighting to match by Jean Kalman), are all still meticulously in place. The basic set, little more than a black box, remains a frame for simple, glowing centerpieces that are fluidly summoned into existence: a bed, a door and, above all, a long banquet table around which the fractious family and guests gather to chew on their food and, of course, one another.
Yet for you to believe, as you are asked to, in the existence of the many rooms and corridors of the hotel (part of the family business) where "Festen" takes place, it is essential that the cast generate an unfailing confidence in knowing the geography of the place. And confidence is in short supply among this ensemble. Lines are recited dutifully and sometimes with tremulous emotion. But seldom does their delivery seem inevitably shaped by the tics and jealousies and terrors of individual characters.
Michael and Helene, Christian's brother and sister, are meant to be, in different ways, eternally on the edge of breakdown. Yet as Mr. Sisto and Ms. Margulies portray them, they seem more agitated than anguished. Ms. MacGraw, who became famous as a film star of great beauty and winceably self-conscious acting, still looks beautiful and acts winceably.
As the principal adversaries of "Festen," Mr. Hayden and Mr. Bryggman come closer to suggesting the interior shadows of their characters. Although Mr. Hayden's theatrical plumminess of diction undercuts his credibility, he exudes the affecting aura of a man emerging by degrees from a life-long state of shock. Mr. Bryggman, a veteran of Shakespeare, makes adroit use of the premise that one may smile and smile and still be a villain.
But aside from Christian's first birthday toast, which Mr. Hayden does very well by, the big moments that are supposed to generate shivers and gasps feel lukewarm and unfulfilled. And you never sense the damning connectedness of these people. The one relationship I really believed in was that of Christian and his dead twin. It's only when Christian looks at his brother's little girl (alternately played by Meredith Lipson and Ryan Simpkins), who clearly reminds him of his beloved sister, that ghosts walk in "Festen." Otherwise, this empty house is still waiting to be haunted.
At the risk of making reductive generalizations, there are certain national affinities that make some plays a better fit for British actors -- and audiences -- than for Americans. In its successful London run, the chilly composure and rigid politesse of the characters in David Eldridge's "Festen" were like a second skin to the cast, and Rufus Norris' deceptively stark staging shaped the drama into a striking marriage of darkest emotional turmoil and perversely juicy intrigue. But American actors tend too often to want to be liked. That's just a part of the problem with Norris' curiously ineffectual Broadway reworking of the production.
Malevolent humor is as intrinsic to Eldridge's play as are the shame, denial and psychological scarring in which it traffics. But that humor should surface as a nervous response to the supremely uncomfortable interpersonal dynamics and ugly revelations of the Danish family gathering being chronicled.
The play opens with an audio staple of horror movies -- the eerie voice of a giggling child singing a nursery rhyme, here accompanied by the sound of running water -- but it's clear from the first scene that there's no menace in the mood. At almost every point through the production, tension is diffused by actors either lobbying too blatantly for laughs or simply showing an awkward disconnect from the material.
British playwright Eldridge adapted "Festen" from Thomas Vinterberg's 1998 film of the same name, released in the U.S. as "The Celebration." The first and still the best of the films made under the pompously rigorous manifesto of technical asceticism known as Dogme, the drama's unnerving intensity was given additional texture by its agitated hand-held camerawork and unadorned, fly-on-the-wall observational style.
Eldridge and Norris, who premiered the play in 2004 at the Almeida before transferring to the West End and then to a U.K. tour, opted for a completely different but no less effective stamp of austerity, an adroit assemblage of Ian MacNeil's bold design, Jean Kalman's crepuscular lighting, Orlando Gough's glowering music and Paul Arditti's ominous sound design. Fluid scene transitions are established via single dominating design elements -- a bed, a long, Last Supper-like table -- that flow from the walls or floor of an imposingly bare black space. Visually, the production remains commanding. But something has gone haywire with the tone, sapping the play's intensity.
The scene is a country home in Denmark where a well-heeled family gathers for the 60th birthday of patriarch Helge (Larry Bryggman). Joining him are glacial wife Else (Ali MacGraw), brooding son Christian (Michael Hayden), free-spirit daughter Helene (Julianna Margulies) and loose-cannon son Michael (Jeremy Sisto), prone to inappropriate behavior. Conspicuously absent is Christian's twin sister, whose recent suicide remains an open wound for him.
Also on hand are spouses, partners, business and Freemasonry associates, including Helmut (Christopher Evan Welch), a doughy German who worked his way up from dishwasher to managing director of Helge's restaurant business. As toastmeister, his is the unenviable job of struggling to maintain civility while the evening disintegrates into chaos.
The trigger for that chaos is Christian's speech. The tinkling sound of cutlery on stemware signals silence for a toast; instead Christian seizes the occasion to recall his dead sister and then to turn that reminiscence into an accusatory bomb lobbed at their father.
What makes "Festen" so appallingly funny, when it's played right, is the way that in this stifling microcosmic society of cultivated appearances and hypocritical behavioral codes, the correct response to the vile secrets being exposed is to carry on sipping wine and nibbling entrees as if nothing untoward had been said. Or to launch into determinedly cheerful sing-alongs, the most sinister of which is a racist ditty about Hottentots, aimed to provoke Helene's black boyfriend (Keith Davis).
The master stroke of Norris' production is that as the truth becomes increasingly impossible to ignore with each fresh revelation, the regimented tableaux of his staging slowly dissolve into twisted disorder.
Vinterberg's film was a natural for stage adaptation -- its characters held captive in a single setting in which the crushing weight of the past comes crashing down on the present. Given the ease of the transposition, there's nothing especially artful in the writing here, save for one terrific sequence that represents an ingeniously crafted stage equivalent to cross-cutting in film.
The action in three separate rooms is played out simultaneously around a single bed by Christian, Helene and Michael and his wife (Carrie Preston). There's something hypnotically messy about these private moments spilling over into each other without the characters' awareness, providing the production's most incisive scene.
The cast members generally feel a long way from owning their roles but there are notes of confidence. Hayden is perhaps too wholesome and untroubled-looking to be an ideal Christian but his bottled-up anger is compelling to watch, as is his sputtering release of raw pain and the additional, renewed desperation it brings. Margulies also throws herself into her character with spirit and exposed nerves; it's hard to take your eyes off her as she struggles to maintain some warmth toward her family despite the inescapable awareness there's something rotten in the state of Denmark.
And in the small role of the family chef and Christian's boyhood friend, Kim, who encourages his attacks on Helge partly in response to the class frictions that ripple through the play, C.J. Wilson conveys a dynamic grasp of the brittle-edged Scandinavian character.
But there are crucial holes in the cast that sink the production. Sisto is too manic, too untethered from his first moment onstage, apparently still in character from "Six Feet Under" and off his meds. In a Broadway debut that's inauspicious to say the least, MacGraw is insufficiently skilled to channel her stiffness into the character's artificial poise and deep denial. Else has only one important speech, but it's painful.
The most debilitating weakness, however, is Bryggman. Often a fine actor, here he is such an innocuous, unthreatening figure that despite Helge's cold authority, his refined vulgarity and moral depravity, the character remains remote. Instead of presenting a steely figurehead of hollow respectability, Bryggman hobbles the play by merely tracing a wan outline.