As its nine episodes progressed, HBO’s “The Gilded Age,” set partly in Newport, proved addictive viewing for its growing fan base. Even with a dearth of real drama and often pedestrian writing, the series found its footing by making the most of its opulent period sets and costumes, frequent forays into camp and, most of all, a talented cast led by numerous Broadway veterans.
Available to stream on HBO with season two already underway, “The Gilded Age” is a glossy soap opera set in the 1880s from “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes that mixes real and fictional characters. The story centers on young Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson), who arrives at the New York home of her old money aunts, Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) and Ada Brook (Cynthia Nixon). Their rarified world is shaken by the arrival of the nouveau riche Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon) and her railroad tycoon husband, George (Morgan Spector), in their dazzling new mansion directly across Fifth Avenue.
“The Gilded Age” managed to be entertaining despite the low stakes of most plot lines, such as whether Marian would realize that Tom Raikes (Thomas Cocquerel) is an opportunistic cad or Bertha’s ball would go off without a hitch. This allowed viewers to focus instead on the gravity-defying hats, the intricate ball gowns and the lavish place settings.
Dilemmas such as George Russell facing ruination when faulty equipment was blamed for a fatal train crash were quickly resolved thanks to coincidence and tidy confessions.
Yet the cast regularly triumphed over the lackluster plot lines. “The Gilded Age” had the ingenuity, aided by the shutdown of Broadway for much of 2020 and ’21, to cast more Tony winners than have ever been assembled off The Great White Way. Not only was this catnip for theater buffs, but each supporting actor, including the six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald, made the most of even one-note roles.
Two-time Tony winner Donna Murphy stole every scene as society powerhouse Mrs. Astor, as did Tony and Emmy winner Nathan Lane, camping it up as Mrs. Astor’s confidante and taste arbiter, Ward McAllister. Other Tony winners included Kelli O’Hara as socialite Aurora Fane; Debra Monk as Van Rhijn’s lady’s maid Armstrong; Celia Keenan-Bolger as the Russells’ housekeeper Mrs. Bruce; and Michael Cerveris as George Russell’s valet, Watson.
Coon, in particular, emerged as a fan favorite for bringing high camp to haughty social climber Bertha Russell. When an enraged Bertha, eating breakfast in her luxurious bed (a scene shot at Newport’s Marble House), hurls her tray across the room, it quickly became a Twitter meme.
Baranski and Nixon, two of the best actresses working today, managed to milk drama and comedy simply from Agnes and Ada eating lunch together in their drawing room.
In episode six, “Heads Have Rolled for Less,” Agnes discovers that her butler, Bannister (Simon Jones), has betrayed her and gone to work for the Russells. “Don’t do something you’ll regret!” shouts Ada as her sister, in a rare venture outside, marches across the dirty street to the Russells’ house.
Fans took to Twitter to note the incredulity that Agnes would impulsively storm out without a hat just so she could spit the episode’s title to a flustered Bannister.
Baranski’s icy delivery of even banal lines was a consistent highlight. “Why does everyone need to go to Newport now?” she deadpanned in episode eight, “Tucked Up In Newport.” The penultimate episode featured McAllister explaining Newport’s popularity to Mrs. Russell.
“Now, New York is coming out to find us,” he says.
“I suppose they’re snapping up all the best lots,” she replies.
The group later heads to the Newport Casino, where the younger set wants to play tennis.
Mrs. Astor’s newly built Beechwood, with Chateau-sur-Mer providing the exterior shots, is the talk of the town. McAllister offers to give Mrs. Russell a tour of the house before her rival, Mrs. Astor, arrives. Panic ensues when the grand dame shows up early and Mrs. Russell has to be unceremoniously ushered through the kitchen and tossed out the back door, where servants are cleaning fish and plucking chickens. As feathers fly around her, Coon registers an expression of such humiliation and seething rage that it alone should earn her an Emmy nomination.