Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Review: HBO’s “The Gilded Age” is Back for More High Society Hijinks Circa 1882 with All Star Cast

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Nothing says high hauteur like new money. In season 2 of HBO’s grand series, The Gilded Age,” “the new” hits its stride.

Forget Stanford White’s magnificent design for the newly completed Russell mansion on-turn-of-the-century Fifth Avenue (its façade built in Newport.) The mansion’s queen of decadent display, Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon) has empires to build ascending to society’s ether.

Snobbery, of course, does not work. Readers of Henry James and Edith Wharton fiction know how the hierarchies among the rich work, their laws finite. Christine Baranski as Agnes van Rhijn looks down her chiseled nose at her neighbors, nailing the divide between Old New York and New.

But Bertha surprises us; aided by her husband George (Morgan Spector) and his fortune, she shows what does the trick: research, preparation, the drive to roll up satin sleeves, and grit to get the job done. For this season, we learn the “true” origins of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Metropolitan Opera House. There will be blood.

Fellowes was brilliant with the splendors and spectacle of “Downton Abbey,” both upstairs and down. Add to that the lives of Blacks, North and South. As we know from season one, Peggy Scott (Denee Benton), an aspiring young black writer works at the van Rhijn house as her career rises at the newspaper called The Globe. Turns out she has a backstory, explored tenderly as is the plight of our heroine, Marion Brook (Louisa Jacobson, a daughter of Meryl Streep), a niece, an innocent, who has been jilted. Disgraced? Never. This season takes a more positive view: she’s merely rescued from marriage to the wrong man.

Satisfying a (guilty) itch for gossip, who’s marrying who, “The Gilded Age” features a dazzling cast of American stage actors: Audra McDonald and Kelli O’Hara head the long list that also includes Michael Cerveris, Patrick Page, Laura Benanti, Kristine Nielsen, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Donna Murphy, and a wildly over the top Nathan Lane, to name a few. Robert Sean Leonard is a particularly cool choice for the clergyman Luke Forte, having performed in Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of “The Age of Innocence.”

Some theater actors work in kitchens downstairs, providing nourishment, and on a larger scale, a sustaining contentment that may be enough for this addictive series—but I, for one, hunger for Season 3.  

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