Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Ok I couldn’t resist but in this case it fits perfectly. David Eldridge’s dramatization of the Dogme film Festen teems with betrayal, denial and devastating secrets that torment an upper-crust Danish family on Daddy’s 60th birthday. It’s also filled with maddening sing-alongs involving woodland creatures, whistling and false laughter.
Festen can be powerful and enigmatic, but its secrets aren’t new — thus, it’s all in the execution. Regrettably, this is where the production faltered. The black pit of a set is a surprisingly effective stand-in for a monstrous estate, but when the actors play out entirely separate dramas within the same smallish chunk of stage, the innovative effect often turns clumsy. Furthermore, a play so emotionally charged demands a gripping, cohesive cast. The actors are very talented — and particularly excellent when doing anguish and rage — but they expend little energy on the nuances of the quieter lines. The result: an awkward first act followed by a stronger second with a finale that was chillingly apt if not fully earned. Curiously, the audience fell silent at the conceptually brilliant yet perhaps too understated moment when oldest son Christian exposes his secret. But when boorish son Michael (Jeremy Sisto, natch) drops his first racist epithet, they gasped. That the scenes are peppered with eerie music and the hollow giggles of a little girl leads us to believe that we will be spooked. Ultimately, what haunts are those blasted songs.