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A CurtainUp Review
Dinner With Friends
By Elyse Sommer
That's not to say that I'd blanked out on the basic plot. Even without the press release to remind me I knew it was about the ripple effect of one couple's split on their best friends. I also remembered that I liked it despite the rather hum-drum familiarity of the situation. But specific scenes and dialogue seemed to have gone missing from my memory bank. At least so I thought, until the first of Allen Moyer's just right sets for the current production — a kitchen-dining room — rolled out on the initially completely bare stage.
As I listened to the current Gabe (Jermey Shamos) and Karen (Marin Hinkle) hold forth with their ecstatic description of a visit to a famous cook's kitchen in Italy as part of his work as a gourmet food journalist, it all came rushing back. The different actors and scenic design notwithstanding, there was nothing surprising about the subsequent outburst from their friend Beth (Heather Burns). Ditto for the scenes revealing the devastating effect on the breakup of her marriage to Tom (Darren Pettie) on Karen and Gabe.
I mention all this since I view it as a tribute to Donald Margulies' ability to write characters and dialogue memorable enough to make a basically sitcom-ish story endearing and thought provoking. Enough so to beat two distinguished contenders for the 2000 Pulitzer Prize. Granted, the timing could have been Margulies's favor. One of the two other contenders, King Hedley II would have been August Wilson's third Pulitzer and Suzan-Lori Parks, the author of In the Blood, was young and prolific enough to have another chance — as she did the following year for Topdog/Underdog.
And so this revival turned out to be a been there- seen that-remember it well experience. It wasn't this familiarity however that made Dinner With Friends seem a less substantial and satisfying theatrical meal. That's not to say that its smartly constructed scenes from two marriages doesn't still add up to an enjoyable play that's immensely enriched by the adroit wordsmithing and insightful observations.
Happily director Pam McKinnon has given the script a handsome and well paced production. As importantly, her cast is up to the challenges of freeing stereotypical characters from their cookie cutter molds and presenting a finely tuned chamber piece — whether working as a quartet, trio, or duet.
The plot in a double tweet: Gabe and Karen want his college chum Tom and her job colleague Beth to share their marital bliss. And so one happy twosome becomes two. The couples' friendship is not only firmly cemented but an integral part of everyone's happiness. Consequently, when Tom leaves Beth for another woman and declares that he's been unhappy with their life for years, Karen and Gabe are left in an emotional maelstrom. They feel less content with themselves and each other. The tightly knit friendship is in trouble as well.
The title dinner sets the plot in motion with Karen and Gabe (and especially Gabe) amusingly displaying the sensitive palates that have turned their love of food into a shared career (he writes, she helps with the interviews and edits). I didn't see the movie version but it's understandable that former food writing celebrity Ruth Reichl had a guest spot playing herself.
As the zinger-filled dialogue meandered into the realm of tragi-comedy, I was once again struck by the fact that the play's strength is that it's less about what happens than the subtle shifts between the various points of view and how these shifts were spurred by the arithmetic of these relationships. I first ran across this relationship concept developed by psychotherapists Muriel James and Louis Savary while writing a book about couples working together, but it applies even more to this play. At the top of the James/Savary mathematical equations we have each couple vis à vis each other — Karen and Gabe, Beth and Tom, the two couples as a foursome, Karen and Tom, Gabe and Tom. Also to be factored in is each of these people's relationship with the unseen parents whose marriages served as do or don't role models for a fulfilling life
It's clear that the best friendships have hidden agendas. In a scene between the two women, Beth explains that she always felt Karen needed her to be a needy incompetent both domestically and in her never realized career as an artist. She tells Karen she never knew if those gifts meant she was "being remedial or hostile."
Tom and Gabe's male bonds are also strained by the separate roads taken. In the final analysis there are no real winners or losers. However, all four actors come off as winners, though I found the "duets" between Shamos's Gabe and Pettie's Tom the most fresh feeling and moving.
While Margulies's gift for dialogue is given plenty of chance to shine, the playwright also gives the actors plenty of nonverbal moments to reveal these hidden fault lines brought to the surface by Beth and Tom's breakup. These silent and significant moments are most deftly expressed by Shamos.
Occasionally the nonverbal business is more superfluous than convincingly significant. This is most evident in a moment when Tom tenderly touches Karen on the head just after it looks as if her matchmaking to get him married to Beth is going to work.
While the opening scene with the sly sendups of people smitten with fancy cooking is quite funny, the funniest part of that scene is Beth's weepy revelations about how Tom justified his leaving her with a tirade of recriminations "pouring out of his mouth like bad greeting cards." Having Beth metamorphose into a counterpart of her ex-husband is one of Margulies' cleverest touches. So is the way he uses the food business not just for humor but as a metaphor for showing how everyday pleasures like enjoying a dessert can provide comfort at stressful moments. He thus shows Beth, Karen and Gabe temporarily forgetting the tempest in their lives as they savor Gabe's mouth watering "limone-mandorle-polenta."
But for all its richly flavored dialogue and characterizations, the dinner served up at the Laura Pels doesn't resonate as quite the gourmet meal it once was. It's a well structured, insightful play but it leaves you hungry for seeing Mr. Margulies apply his considerable gifts to more currently significant themes.