- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 11, 2003

NEW YORK Think of Anne Kaufman Schneider as a theatrical gatekeeper a stylish, intelligent and wittily opinionated woman who is one of the people you have to go through to put "You Can't Take It With You," "The Man Who Came to Dinner," "The Royal Family" or "Dinner at Eight" on stage.
Asked what type of control she exerts over these 20th century classics, she smiles and says succinctly, "Plenty."
As the daughter of playwright George S. Kaufman, Mrs. Schneider is the guardian of his literary estate, a cornucopia of nearly four dozen plays he co-wrote from the 1920s onward with such illustrious folk as Moss Hart, Edna Ferber, Marc Connelly, Ring Lardner and more.
These days, she is extolling the virtues of "Dinner at Eight," a social comedy of manners and morals her father wrote with Miss Ferber. The play, a big Broadway hit in 1932 and a famous movie a year later, now has resurfaced in a lavish revival by Lincoln Center Theater.
With a cast of 27 plus one lap dog and seven separate sets, "Dinner at Eight" is not a work that gets many productions. Its last Broadway appearance in 1967 ("perfectly dreadful," according to Mrs. Schneider) didn't last long.
"You have to find the right balance of acting styles," says Andre Bishop, artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater. "And that's not easy because it isn't really a comedy, but it isn't really a serious play either."
Mrs. Schneider offers her own description.
"'Dinner at Eight' is dark," she says. "It's about the Depression and everyone in it their lives are on the brink." The play focuses on an ambitious if shallow society matron determined to succeed. No matter that marriages, careers and even a life or two are on the verge of destruction.
When LCT decided to do "Dinner at Eight," Mr. Bishop called Mrs. Schneider, whom he knew slightly. "First, they tell me about the director, which is almost the most important thing," she says, describing the way she deals with production requests, which also must be approved by the Ferber estate.
"And what I liked best about (director) Gerry Gutierrez, when he talked to me about the play and he was here for several hours was that he never mentioned the movie once. He never mentioned the actors in the movie. He didn't say 'the Jean Harlow part.' Or the 'Billie Burke part.' He referred to them as the characters in the play which I took to be a very good sign."
Mrs. Schneider, 77, dressed casually in black pants and a colorful blouse, sits in the living room of her East Side apartment just off Madison Avenue. It's a formal space, floral print chairs and a plush sofa. Theatrical memorabilia of her father are across the entrance foyer hall in another room.
Her father's presence is felt as Mrs. Schneider talks about his work, which included the direction of such big hits as "The Front Page" and "Guys and Dolls," as well as many of his own plays.
"I think he would be absolutely astonished by what has happened," Mrs. Schneider says. "I don't think it occurred to him that his plays would ever be done again. I don't think he ever thought very much about them. He died in 1961 and, except for summer stock, there were no revivals."
Things changed in 1965 when Ellis Rabb, with his APA-Phoenix Repertory Company, brought the Kaufman and Hart comedy "You Can't Take It With You" back to Broadway. Mr. Rabb later cemented the playwright's reputation with a well-received production of "The Royal Family," co-written by Mr. Kaufman with Miss Ferber, which starred Eva Le Gallienne and Rosemary Harris.
"Dinner at Eight" has more to contend with particularly the starry 1933 MGM movie that had the Kaufman-Ferber script adapted and reworked by three other writers, including Herman Mankiewicz. The film also has a famous last moment exchange between Harlow and Marie Dressler that's not in the play and which Mrs. Schneider adamantly refuses to include in any revivals.
"I have been very lucky with most of the directors of my father's plays," she says. "Especially Ellis Rabb and Gerry Gutierrez. Those two in particular stuck exactly to the piece. If you're directing a new play, you can muck around with it and see how it works, but not this one."
"One is always a little scared of people who control estates because you want their approval and you don't know exactly how rigid or liberal they may or may not be," Mr. Bishop says. "Just because they are the heir or are in control of the estate doesn't mean they have any talent or interest in the theater. But Anne does, and she's been an enthusiast."
Mrs. Schneider went to the first read-through of the current revival at the Vivian Beaumont Theater through Jan. 26. "But I don't go to rehearsals and I don't go to auditions. I get so nervous for the actors," she says. But she did attend the first day of technical rehearsals, a complicated operation particularly with this production because of designer John Lee Beatty's ornate sets, which swoop in from the wings or rise majestically from beneath the stage.
"I was there from 10 in the morning until around midnight. I sit there and I talk to the understudies," she says.
"The thing about Anne, unlike a lot of people in her position, is that she knows and is friendly with and adores actors she has a lot of friends who are actors," Mr. Bishop explains. Mrs. Schneider makes it a point to see most major theater offerings in New York, so when Lincoln Center was casting the show, she knew every name that was proposed.
"In the end, it's not really partnership because, if there is someone Mr. Gutierrez loves and I didn't, I would give in. He's the boss," she adds.
Mrs. Schneider, a widow, often travels around the country to see productions of her father's work. She particularly admired a recent revival of "The Royal Family" at St. Louis Rep. "They got it," she says. And then there was a production of "You Can't Take It With You" done at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, where her son-in-law teaches and one of her two grandsons, Jamie Cronin, was in the cast.
She often confers about possible projects with Mr. Hart's widow, Kitty Carlisle Hart, who lives in the next block. "We are very close and agree on everything and if we don't, we talk about it until one of us gives in. She really is my best friend.
"It's very moving to think that these plays and I was 7 when 'Dinner at Eight' was written still work," Mrs. Schneider says. "They really do.
"And the curtain call at 'Dinner' is fabulous. The stage moves back, up and down. Suddenly the play is over and the lights go on and 27 people come out on the stage. When you seem them all in a heap together, it is amazing."

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