nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 8, 2006
Festen is the most powerful play I've seen on Broadway in years. It packs such an emotional wallop that it was all my companion and I could talk about for hours afterward; it's still weighing down my heart and my mind a full day later. But it's also a terrifically engaging suspense drama, featuring one of the finest casts assembled for the New York stage in recent memory; and it's a deliciously involving, thrilling theatrical experience to boot. If you care about theatre that challenges the intellect and the status quo, get to Festen now.
You will have to take my word for a lot of the foregoing, by the way, because like any good thriller, the heart of Festen is a secret—or rather, a complicated web of secrets—that I will in no fashion give away here. The play, which is based on a Danish film and play by Thomas Vinterberg, Mogens Rukov, and Bo Hr. Hansen, as dramatized by David Eldridge, takes place at the 60th birthday party of Helge Hansen (Larry Bryggman). (Festen is translated as "The Celebration.") Helge is a successful, very rich entrepreneur, and gathered here for this event are his wife, Else (Ali MacGraw); his three children, Christian (Michael Hayden), Helene (Julianna Margulies), and Michael (Jeremy Sisto); Michael's wife, Mette (Carrie Preston), and their daughter (Meredith Lipson/Ryan Simpkins); his father (John Carter); an old friend and lodge brother named Poul (David Patrick Kelly); and Helmut (Christopher Evan Welch), a former employee who is now Managing Director of Hansen's company. Also in attendance are the butler, Lars (Stephen Kunken), the maid, Pia (Diane Davis), and the chef, Kim (C.J. Wilson); later a surprise guest named Gbatokai (Keith Davis) will turn up.
What we notice almost immediately about the Hansens is their sense of entitlement and privilege. Else spends most of her energy maintaining decorum, regardless of what is going on around her (and MacGraw is spectacularly effective doing this, her movie star aura helping to make her the focal point of many a scene). Michael, the youngest child, snaps at the servants and spars (physically as well as verbally) with his wife. Helene, the middle child, fancies herself a champion of the underdog but thinks nothing of ordering Lars about. Christian, effortlessly suave in black tie, seems preoccupied; his twin sister, Linda, has died recently, and perhaps that's what's weighing on his mind.
Helge is affability personified.
We're aware that things are off-kilter by the time the dinner table slides onto the stage as if by its own power; it's set Last Supper-style, with the long side that's closest to the audience empty, as if the family and their guests are about to be put on display. The dinner party begins and then quickly goes awry when Christian makes his toast. He lets his father choose from one of the two speeches he says he's prepared. Helge chooses the wrong one, as it turns out (though probably he has no real choice at all).
And then, after Christian says what he has to say, the party starts to collapse under its own weight. The table eventually flies away, again on its own; the whole house seems to implode, in fact, as the family itself starts to rot away from the systemic corruption that's revealed to be at its core.
What's so ingenious about Festen is the way that it gets at this insidious, hidden-away truth, using theatrical models that look familiar and then suddenly turn on us, startlingly, joltingly. The Danish setting and the forced jocularity of the characters makes us feel in places like we're inside an Ibsen play; the weird juxtapositions of characters of different classes and ages remind us of Chekhov (Kelly's character, Poul, is a completely enigmatic presence, just like all those once-prosperous neighbors who are always inexplicably hanging around in plays like The Cherry Orchard and The Seagull).
Even the servants are in on it—up to their eyeballs, in fact, in complicity. Eldridge lulls us into a false sense of security and then pulls us down into the muck. The shock of recognition is palpable and dangerous.
Ian McNeil's production design is spectacular; ditto Jean Kalman's lighting, Paul Arditti's sound, and Joan Wadge's costumes (the one she's designed for MacGraw to wear at the birthday party is particularly triumphant, encapsulating a great deal of this woman's ostentation and uselessness in this single splashy but reserved outfit). Under Rufus Norris's flawless direction, the ensemble is magnificent, with standout work offered in supporting roles by Carrie Preston, Keith Davis, Stephen Kunken, David Patrick Kelly, and Meredith Lipson (who played the little girl at the performance reviewed). In the five leading roles, the stellar quintet assembled here is dazzlingly good: MacGraw and Bryggman are chilling as the parents, while Sisto, Margulies, and especially Hayden are enormously affecting as the troubled offspring.
Festen is great theatre because it leaves us shaken and uncomfortable; as the veil of truth slowly lifts over the proceedings, we watch the settled elders of the play attempt various strategies of denial, like so much lubrication to ease them out of culpability and back toward a satisfaction that they have assumed as if by divine right. The resonance is very clear and very upsetting. But will the people who most need to hear it manage to evade its stark cathartic message?