Updated: Jun 1
APRIL 3, 2023 — NEWPORT BEACH
A marriage crumbles in "Dinner With Friends," but it would be difficult to forge a more harmonious union of cast, director and script than the one created at Newport Theatre Arts Center, where Kathy Paladino's witty, unflinching production of Donald Margulies's rueful 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning play opened this past Friday night, dissecting the work’s subtle depths while serving as a strong showcase for its quartet of veteran stage performers.
“Dinner With Friends” was also made into a popular HBO movie in 2001, which starred Dennis Quaid, Andie McDowell, Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette, following the book to the letter. The play intertwines the lives of Gabe (Mark Coyan) and Karen (Holland Renton), world-traveling food writers with a kitchen that would rival Martha Stewart, and their close friends Tom (Angel Correa), a hotshot lawyer, and his artist wife, Beth (Jamie Bartlett), whose 12-year marriage is in tatters. Beth unburdens herself over a dinner to die for at Gabe and Karen's, though she still can ooh and ah over the lemon almond polenta cake. Margulies's characters practice what one might term culinary couples' therapy: they let a tuile be their umbrella.
Margulies, author of "The Model Apartment" and "The Loman Family Picnic," has fashioned a deceptively straightforward suburban comedy. He has chosen the most shopworn of subjects, marital infidelity, and picked as his setting a comfortably banal Connecticut outpost of Sub-Zero refrigerators, one-acre zoning and two-car garages. Yet his take on the denizens of this world is forthright, clear-eyed, and even more disturbingly raw than anything you might expect. What initially seems a rather conventional glimpse at the perils of breaking up becomes an abraded examination of the terrors of actually staying together.
The production at NTAC is as satisfyingly professional as they come, the sort of cozy and expertly acted play that is both funny and wry, synchronously teeming with those sharp-barbed witticisms of most veteran connubials, while bathed in the unspoken sorrow that can sneak up on you in middle age. It is a candid look at the vulnerability everyone experiences as the shadow of time grows longer and the limits of one's choices are more clearly defined.
A vulnerability that everyone seems to relate to. And when the play threatens to be schematic and predictable, it is then anything but, becoming instead a surprisingly touching rumination about redefined relationships, and the balances and affections that shift unexpectedly, just because, despite our reluctance to want to accept it…nothing lasts forever.
The playwright is extremely smart about the subtleties of marriage. Gabe and Karen need each other. They complement each other. When Mr. Coyan and Ms. Renton share their household chores in unison in their cottage on Martha's Vineyard, it is more than the fulfillment of an obligation; it is a warm commentary on domestic ritual — the "little things you do together," in Stephen Sondheim's succinct musical phrase — and on the subliminal teamwork that a good marriage develops. Gabe and Karen are like an Olympic rowing pair, dependent on synchronized strokes. When one rhythm falters, they're both off their game.
What seriously throws them is the news of the breakup. Ms. Bartlett’s Beth explains that Tom has found another woman; when in a subsequent scene Mr. Correa’s Tom discovers that Beth has spilled the beans without him present, he rushes over to Gabe and Karen's with his side of the story (and with a hankering for a piece of that polenta cake). It's no different from Beth's version, really, except that Tom declares himself the injured party — Beth will no longer touch him in casually intimate ways, he complains — and admits he never had much interest in the rigors of marriage, the ferrying of the children (none of which are seen in the play), or the never-ending mortgage payments.
These, of course, are nearly universal expressions of the misgivings of middle age; Margulies is concerned with the effect Tom and Beth's opting out has on Gabe and Karen's sense of well-being. In a terrific pair of scenes in Act II, a complex tangle of expectations and self-delusions are laid bare to help demonstrate how tenuous the friendship between the couples really is.
Over lunch, Beth announces she has found another man, and Karen registers her disapproval, which infuriates Beth: "You needed me to be a mess," she says. Meanwhile, over drinks, Tom extols the wonders of his new life with a travel agent named Nancy, and it is Gabe who feels betrayed. "We were supposed to grow old and fat together, the four of us," he says.
Kathy Paladino reveals once again how astute and precise this director can be with actors, and gracefully captures the upper-middle-class milieu with a proper, unobstructed focus on the layered relationships. In concert, Joshua Serrano’s lighting, Jim Huffman’s wonderful sets and the team of Rachel Varisco & Laurie Martinez’ costumes successfuly intensify the bittersweetness the director seeks to bring out.
Ms. Bartlett and Mr. Correa gives petulant Beth and seedy Tom the required volubility that make selfishness seem somehow justifiable. As Karen and Gabe, Ms. Renton and the brilliantly low-keyed Mr. Coyan, both settled and unsettled by the strictures of long-term commitment, still remain immensely likable even while demonstrating unpleasant truths.
Ms. Renton’s brittle skittishness nicely masks some unknowable residual anger, and Mr. Coyan beautifully conjures a man with sensitive antennae for his wife's strengths and weaknesses.
Surprisingly, despite its generic moniker, Donald Margulies’ “Dinner With Friends” seems more substantial now than ever before. Hard to say whether that’s because it has ripened like the cheeses and wines it so obsessively exalts — “What do you think of the Shiraz?” — or because time has cultivated audiences into a deeper consideration of its sweet-and-sour midlife themes. Probably both. At any rate, it’s delicious.
NEWPORT THEATRE ARTS CENTER PRESENTS, “DINNER WITH FRIENDS,” by DONALD MARGULIES, Directed by KATHY PALADINO; Asst Directed by JACKIE MELBON; Produced by JIM HUFFMAN; Set Design by JIM HUFFMAN; Lighting Design by JOSHUA SERRANO; Costumes by RACHEL VARISCO, LAURIE MARTINEZ; Lights, Sound, Booth by JOSH SERRANO.
WITH: ANGEL CORREA, MARK COYAN, HOLLAND RENTON, JAMI BARTLETT.
Performances March 31-April 23; Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 8:00PM; Sundays at 2:00PM; Starting at $20; For Tickets, please see: www.ntactickets.com/
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credits: Chuck Weinberg