Though Donald Margulies' dramatic script rings with authenticity, and this pitch-perfect PlayMakers' Repertory Company production resonates with memorable performances, prospective theater-goers should still be advised: Dinner with Friends isn't exactly a "first date" kind of play.
On the other hand, for a prospective last date, this two-act analysis of two self-absorbed, mid-term marriages in the late Baby Boomer set has real potential. With the cool precision of a medical forensics exam, Margulies deftly probes the flaws in both, discerns the quick from the dead--and then leaves the audience to figure out which of the two their relationships most resemble.
Which explains the uneasy fidgeting in the Sunday afternoon audience for this 2000 Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Say this much: Assorted couples weren't squirming out of boredom.
Celebrating their recent return from a culinary tour of Italy, food critics Gabe and Karen throw a dinner party for longtime friends Beth and Tom, a couple they helped set up over a decade earlier. Both couples have been married for years, and both have kids--safely ensconsed upstairs on this occasion, watching The Aristocats on video.
The wine has been served, and the evening's menu of pumpkin risotto and grilled lamb has been dutifully accompanied by Gabe and Karen's critical analyses, in mid-bite, of their own preparation of each dish. Thank heavens the slides of the trip weren't back yet.
But as the small talk dwindles, the bill of fare receives an unexpected late addition when Beth breaks down and confides to her hosts that her marriage is on the rocks. Tom's absence at the party, initially blamed on a last-minute business trip, is actually his final departure from Beth and the kids.
This development ultimately challenges the fracturing quartet's past relationships. If the glue that kept one marriage together wasn't good for the long haul, what are its implications for the other? Are breakups contagious? And if marriage can't keep people together, what chances do mere friendships have in going the distance?
The chilly state of affairs is cunningly first suggested in the cold, crème-colored furnishings on Narelle Sissons' set. At the start, four white hardwood chairs with white upholstered coverings surround an off-white table immaculately set for dinner. Picture perfect? Yes--particularly given the three tasteful--and certainly symbolic--frames in oak that literally surround this scene from behind, beneath and above. An on-stage ceiling suggests a white canvas framed in oak--but it's actually a canvas with a rectangular hole cut from the middle.
Not only is this a graphic representation of things to come, it's a daring design choice as well, since the ceiling eclipses all of the lighting instruments directly above stage. Still, designer Mary Louise Geiger rises to the challenge with surreal, cool-blue lights at scene changes, and a final, chilly fluorescent grace note at the end of act one.
But such cool, aesthetic surfaces mask problematic human relationships--some with a lot less integrity than others. Drew Barr probes these with direction as finely nuanced as Geiger and Sissons' accomplishments in design. It's a triumph fully shared in this production among the actors: three veteran performers and a notable newcomer to the region.
Jessica Peterson brings an authentic raspy, scattered energy to the role of Beth. In so doing, she more than merely holds up her end of the bargain with company members Ray Dooley, Kenneth P. Strong and visiting artist Tandy Cronyn.
Cronyn's return to PlayMakers (after headlining in Wit two years ago) is particularly welcome here. While her competence and warmth as a food critic suggests something of a Lynne Rossetto Kasper (of Splendid Table fame), ultimately, she struggles as much with the same relationship questions the rest of the quartet does.
Cronyn's chemistry with Kenneth P. Strong as her husband, Gabe, is as significant as Strong's chemistry with Ray Dooley, as Tom. It has to be, in order for this play to work. In Margulies' world, infidelity in one relationship implies infidelity in the other three as well.
Though Gabe observes early on that divorce is a little like a death, the true interment awaits him in a particularly touching second-act scene with Tom. For Gabe, Tom's leaving abandons an unspoken pact the two made together: "We had a vow, too, you know, not a marriage but something like it. ... We were supposed to get old and fat together, and watch each other's kids grow up and cry together at their weddings. ... I guess, I mean, I thought we were in this together. You know? For life."
Margulies' script notes that, after the initial passions of a relationship subside, something of substance and integrity must sustain it. Unfortunately, those commodities are not on sale at either Williams-Sonoma or Restoration Hardware. Karen's plaintive, penultimate question is "How do we not get lost?" The answer was finally left to the audience--some of whose members clearly struggled to come up with an appropriate answer.
If you really want that inventory of your relationships, go see Dinner with Friends. I dare you.