Dinner at Precisely Eight-Thirteen
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 2, 2007
Lisa Ferber and Paul Nelson's frothy concoction Dinner at Precisely Eight-Thirteen is the musical that The Drowsy Chaperone ought to contain (but does not). For 90 fairly blissful minutes, Ferber and Nelson sustain a witty and entirely foolish parody of American musical comedy of the late '20s/early '30s—something that is not at all easy to do—and they nail their frivolous target with impressive accuracy. Other influences are apparent here (everything from Double Indemnity to Grey Gardens to, in the characters' names, both P.G. Wodehouse and S.J. Perelman), but it is the utter empty-headed silliness of those shows that were a staple of American entertainment 70 or 80 years ago that carries the day here.
Which is not to suggest that Dinner has no plot; far from it. It concerns Kitty LaBlintz, a 35-year-old socialite who lives in a Gramercy Park mansion with her nanny, Miss Pudding. Tonight they will read Kitty's late father's will, and then have a dinner party (guess what time); her guests are the others mentioned in the will—her father's old friend Snerdley Jammybottoms, a publisher; Flitney Shropfordshire III, a financier and longtime family friend; Hedy Highball, a mystery writer who was also working on the LaBlintz family biography; and Rose E. Cheeks, Kitty's dad's "personal secretary." There's also an unexpected guest, one Thaddeus Q. Feydeau, an actor who concocts a get-rich-quick scheme that involves Kitty and a best-selling philosopher (!) named Smarmy Von Footnote. Romantic alliances will be negotiated, secrets will be revealed, and someone will be murdered before the evening is over.
But not to worry: it's all in fun. Ferber's dialogue is zippy and packed with one-liners like:
Well on that day, I was wearing an after bath splash called Six Days Under Bernie's Sofa. Now, by that time I'd only spent four days under Bernie's sofa but I figured I'd keep going and see what happened.
And her lyrics are solid and funny, including one particularly delightful list song of the kind Hart and Porter used to specialize in:
If a philosopher is their type of bloke
When it comes to Heidegger I'm quite well spoke
I can live my life full throttle, lounging with my favorite bottle
Long as on a moment's notice I can bust out Aristotle
We don't hear this kind of song much these days; Ferber and Nelson zero in on the period they're satirizing with real precision and luster. Nelson's melodies are charmers, too.
This world premiere production is rough around some of its edges, which may be attributable to a festival's compressed rehearsal and technical schedules. But I'm not sure that director Elizabeth London is on the same page as Ferber and Nelson; it feels like some of the specific archetypes and targets are unrealized here. Jennifer Houston is dead-on as Hedy, the writer with attitude, and Ivanna Cullinan (Miss Pudding), Moira Stone (Kitty), and Greg LoProto (Flitney) have great moments in their respective roles.
Dinner at Precisely Eight-Thirteen, the opening show of this year's Pretentious Festival, is a great deal of fun. And who knows: if Ferber and Nelson keep developing and sharpening this piece (as I would enthusiastically suggest they should), we may see it at NYMF or even at the Marquis.