PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Festen : Dinner With Fiends

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Festen : Dinner With Fiends
Michael Hayden, who made his first big Broadway noise with the last go-around of Carousel , isn’t singing “[This Was] A Real Nice Clambake” nowadays at the Music Box, where the British-Danish Festen laid out its difficult-to-digest dramatic spread April 9.
Julianna Margulies; Ali MacGraw; Larry Bryggman; Michael Hayden; Jeremy Sisto; Bill Kenwright; Rufus Norris; Stephen Daldry; Michael Cerveris; Glenn Close & Hank Azaria; Edward Hibbert.
Julianna Margulies; Ali MacGraw; Larry Bryggman; Michael Hayden; Jeremy Sisto; Bill Kenwright; Rufus Norris; Stephen Daldry; Michael Cerveris; Glenn Close & Hank Azaria; Edward Hibbert. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

If anything, he is The Singing Birthday Telegram From Hell— Festen ’s festering first-born son who suddenly surfaces on his home turf to salute his father’s 60th birthday. Unfortunately, the prodigal has problems, and his sense of celebration is a little off—like flinging on the family dining table, which seats 13 but none comfortably, a skeleton from the closet and picking at it incessantly every chance he gets. It makes for a rough first-course, and there are other courses and another act. Every time Hayden takes drink in hand to make a toast, cast and audience alike grip their chairs for the fallout.

Only Broadway’s Sweeney Todd would find this a lighthearted evening in the theatre. Indeed, as he entered the play’s after-party, held in the much more convivial after-glow of Tavern on the Green, Michael Cerveris cracked, “And I thought our show was dark!”

And where better than a tavern to repair after the brawl-in-the-family donnybrook the first-nighters had just witnessed? Despite the bruising Big Issues at the heart of the play, there was an inordinate amount of laughs provoked by dysfunction taken at full gallop.

“The only way to survive is to laugh,” reasons Keith Davis (and not Keith David, who’ll be following him to Broadway in a few Sundays on Hot Feet —“I can’t get away from that guy”). In Festen , he’s the last-to-arrive guest who reduces the clan to a new low.

Wouldn’t you know Ali MacGraw would know how to dress for her first Broadway opening night party? You just didn’t know she would have one. Nor did she. This is her first time on a stage—any stage—since kindergarden (“I was an autumn leaf once—one of those little kids that lands with a thud at the back of the auditorium and the stage shakes.”) MacGraw was Elegance Concentrate, standing in the press line in what could only be called a star stance—stiletto heels stylishly crossed, black top, red pants—“just Chinese trousers and a Chinese shirt made by my friend, Pat Donovan. It’s my favorite piece of clothing so I was going to wear it whether it was the right thing or not—for good luck.”

She was obviously relieved to be beyond her Broadway bow, and color was returning. “Did you like it?” she asked a scribe under her breath. “You can say no. I won’t tell anyone.”

Two of her three children on stage are also marking their Broadway debuts, both arriving via TV: “ER’s” Emmy-winning Julianna Margulies (who has done Off-Broadway before) and “Six Feet Under’s” Jeremy Sisto (who did theatre in L.A. and Chicago).

“I’m glad this week is over—it has been a stressful week,” admitted Sisto, his mother’s son even after the curtain has come down. He plays the boorish brother and does it with an uncharted, unpredictable, animalistic walk. “I don’t walk like that normally—unless I’m feeling really insecure.” He liked the idea that he can continue the quest for his character every night. “I’m excited about finding it over and over. Some nights, you’re looking for it and you’re finding it as you go along. Then, some nights—well, y’know.”

Miraculously, amid the chaos, there is an on-stage dinner break where the craziness and all talk come to a halt so the cast can actually eat. “When it’s salmon, I’m in heaven because I love salmon,” said Margulies. “Usually, it’s chicken. But last Thursday pork popped up on our plates, and some of us aren’t supposed to eat pork. I have the little girl on my lap, and I feed her mostly. But an actor prepares: I always go on that stage hungry.”

The inestimable Larry Bryggman has the tall order of making the ogre at the head of the table a recognizable human being. “That was the only reason I did this,” he confessed. “In the beginning I didn’t feel I really could. I kinda was put off it. Then I talked to a few people and read it a few more times and thought, ‘Okay, maybe something can be done. I’ll give it a shot.’ I hope I did it well because there are lot of people like that walking around out there. This has been a deep experience—and painful when I’ve been working with the material. I have young children, which makes it even more immediate to me.”

No, he did not see—or want to see— Festen as a film (called “The Celebration” in the U.S.), a 1998 Danish indelicacy directed and co-written by Thomas Vinterberg which embraced the no-frills/fadeouts/film-music approach of the Dogme movie movement.

“We had a DVD sitting there the whole time on the stage manager’s desk,” remembered Bryggman. “He said, ‘Do you want to see it? Go ahead and watch it because it’s so different.’ But I never wanted to because I never want to know how other actors do my role.”

When producer Marla Rubin saw the movie, she saw a play and spent several years intricately negotiating the stage rights with the Dogme top-dogs. Festen ’s hit status in London confirmed her vision, and she plans to turn more Dogme movies into stage plays. Two by the movement’s main man, Lars von Trier —2003’s “Dogville” and 2005’s “Mandalay”—already seem stage-ready, being tales of a Rocky Mountain village of the ‘30s which were shot on a huge soundstage with fake fronts and chalked-off streets and alleys. "The sequel especially intrigues me," she said.

Clearly, the hand-held camera chaos of the film needed a different kind of stage language, and Rubin tapped adapter David Eldridge and director Rufus Norris to come up with a highly theatrical equivalent, which they did in spades—enough to convince showman Bill Kenwright to come aboard with more moneybags. He had no choice, as he now sees it.

“My favorite line ever—in anything I’ve ever produced—is in Stephen Sondheim ’s Passion where Fosca says, ‘Loving you is not a choice. It’s who I am.’ When people see Festen and say, ‘Why did you do it?’, I say, ‘I had no choice. It’s who I am.’ If I don’t want to produce something like Festen , I have no right to call myself a producer. ‘If it’s there, build it, and they will come.’ When do you hear concentration like that in a theatre? There’s no greater gift in the world than to make an audience think! I love silence in the theatre. In this particular play, there’s that wonderful moment of complete silence—a four-minute pause that could go on for ten minutes. I think it’s pretty near perfect.”

Next up for Kenwright—like April 11— Dame Judi Dench will open in his revival of Hay Fever at the Haymarket. “She should have opened last Thursday, but she has been ill. She’s to be back in rehearsals tomorrow, and the plan is she will open on Tuesday.” After that, he’ll rehire director Norris to redo Cabaret and he will open it in London Sept. 26.

April 11 is pretty important to Norris and Eldridge, too. That’s when they put into rehearsal their next opus, The Market Boys , at the National. “It’s about growing up in a big East End market in the ‘80s in the time of Thatcher,” says the 41-year-old Norris.

The director had only kind words for his American cast. “They were very hard-working, very applied. Fantastic sense of humor, knocking around. And they take no prisoners.

“One way I could have directed this would have been to come in and go, ‘Hey, guys, I’ve done this before. You stand there, and you stand there.’ I have no interest in doing that, personally—but, even if I had had that interest, there would have been a couple of them who would have put me straight immediately. ‘Thank you very much, but we’re going to make it ours'. And that’s exactly what I wanted.”

Eldridge seconded that motion. “It’s just different with any bunch of actors,” he said. “At the moment, we’ve got this production of Festen with the fourth cast in the U.K. on national tour. It’s different. It’s the same, and it’s different. I think American actors are very open and expressive and emotionally free, and those qualities bring wonderful opportunities. English actors are often buttoned-up and have to be nudged into a direction.”

Yes, there was a certain Americanization of the text—any British expression that would bring audiences here up short was changed. Otherwise, the play “is about the bed and the table, really.”

One of the members of the aforementioned ensemble, David Patrick Kelly plays Bryggman’s cranky older brother whose depression darkens during this long day’s journey into nightmare. “This has been one of my favorite theatre experiences because of that ensemble thing, so I was researching old Preston Sturges-John Ford films to see what is an ensemble anyway. It’s just about all those individual characters up there on stage.”

Stephen Kunken is the waiter who stands off to the side and fuels the party with vino and quietly rules the proceedings with a velvet glove. Significant clue: his name is Lars, just perhaps a deep bow to von Trier—a little inside joke for the Dogme campfollowers.

Kunken from Proof had his last tour of stage duty in Washington D.C., playing Doc in the Kennedy Center revival of Mister Roberts . The actor in that title role, Michael Dempsty , is currently across the street covering for Paul Rudd and Bradley Cooper in Three Days of Rain (a.k.a. Julia Roberts ’ “Twelve Weeks of Reign”); the Ensign Pulver aboard their S.S. Reluctant is now Leo Bloom a block over in The Producers : Hunter Foster .

Margulies’ Close friend, Glenn , led the glitter brigade on opening night, followed by Carrie Preston ’s hubby, “Lost”’s Michael Emerson (having a happy hiatus at his wife’s first night). Rachel York was there in support of her Dessa Rose co-star, Hayden, and it wasn’t a tough commute: She works next door at the Imperial in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and will until June 18 (when Sherie Rene Scott , who opens Sunday at Signature Theatre Company in Landscape of the Body , resumes her original role). York will take it over in December—but first she’s treating her parents to a 50th anniversary vacation in Greece. Hank Azaria “wound down” at Festen after giving his final performance in Spamalot . Others in attendance: Tony winner Jennifer Ehle , Lady Macbeth-to-be (this summer in the park opposite Liev Schreiber ); Barefoot in the Park ’s Jill Clayburgh and daughter Lily Rabe (who has two more weeks of filming “that untitled Scott Hicks project” once known as “Mostly Martha”); Anthony Edwards (a bit startled by a grubby autograph-seeker who said, “I was in `Revenge of the Nerds,' too”—or was it `II'?); Edie Falco , who’s beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel—“only it’s not very light. I do so love working on ‘The Sopranos,’ so I’m sad about that”); Claudia Shear and Kathryn Erbe .

“I love your work.” “I love your work.” Edward Hibbert and director Scott Ellis shouted at each other across the lobby of the Music Box at intermission. They’d better. They’ll work on Curtains together when it goes into rehearsal in June, even though Hibbert will be butlerling eight performances a week for The Drowsy Chaperone (“hardest working man in show business,” sighed Hibbert, improbably appropriating the James Brown title). The next day Ellis had his final Curtains casting call to see who’ll join David Hyde Pierce (also late of Spamalot ), Karen Ziemba and Show People ’s Debra Monk .

Curtains will be Ellis’ third show in a row. His first of the season, The Little Dog Laughed at the Second Stage, will be coming back next season for a Broadway run, thus giving the fabulous Julie White her much-deserved, long-overdue shot at the Tony.

“She’d have gotten it this time. We just couldn’t get a house, but we’ll get a house in October. I’m hoping it’ll be the Helen Hayes. It might be another theatre. I just happen to love the Helen Hayes. I think it’s right for this, but wherever it needs to go, it will go.”

David Grimm , who had a happy run at The Public with his hilarious Measure for Pleasure , is bound for Sundance with his new play, Steve and Idi (that’s right: as in Idi Amin). “It’s about loss, forgiveness, mourning,” he said, adding brightly “It’s a comedy.”

Cerveris will be following his Sweeney Todd with Kurt Weill. He’ll be playing the composer in Arthur Uhry ’s LoveMusik . The question is when: “The scheduling has been changed three or four times during the last few weeks. The latest is after the start of next year.” And his current, if not constant, co-star, Patti LuPone , won’t be Lotte Lenya. The closest she’ll come is doing Weill’s opera, Mahagonny —to Audra McDonald ’s Jenny—with the Los Angeles Opera for seven performances, starting Feb. 10, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. But first she goes it alone in Gypsy at Ravinia Aug 11-13. It’s Cerveris’s first Ravinia-free summer in years. “The withdrawal will be terrible,” he feared.

Casting director Jack Doulin said he’s one role away from completing the cast of columbinas . Keith Nobbs , eternal teen, will head a cast of eight (Carmen Herlihy, Nicole Lawrence , among them) starting rehearsals Tuesday at New York Theatre Workshop.

Newscaster Robert MacNeil was present on opening night to see the design work of his son, Ian MacNeil , and so was MacNeil’s longtime collaborator, director Stephen Daldry , who’ve teamed on everything from An Inspector Calls to Billy Elliot .

The plan to bring Billy to Canada before New York is off, said Daldry. “We thought we might go to Canada first, but we’re not now. I think I might bring it in in 2008. I want to do a little movie first.” When Daldry does “a little movie,” it’s famous and he’s Oscar-nominated (“The Hours” and the “Billy Elliot” flick that inspired Elton John to musicalize it for the stage).

The cast gives their opening night curtain call.
The cast gives their opening night curtain call. Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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