Updated: Jun 17, 2021
A delicate balance of anguish and bittersweet humor, as two couples confront the aftershocks of infidelity.
Inland Valley Repertory Theatre presents “Dinner with Friends,” a play written by Donald Marguilies, and now being livestreamed as the last entry in their Reader's Theatre series.
Performances are for two days only, June 15th and 16th at 7pm; tickets are $27 at www.ivrt.booktix.com, and can also be purchased by phone from 10am until 1pm at (909) 859-4878.
“Dinner with Friends” began as a commissioned work for the Actors Theater of Louisville and had its world premiere at the 1998 Humana Festival of New American Plays. It then played in California’s South Coast Repertory and, quite unusually, in Paris, before opening off Broadway in New York in 1999. In 2000, it won the coveted Pulitzer Prize for drama.
The play stars IVRT Resident Artist Michael Buczynski as Gabe (“A Streetcar Named Desire”), Jessica Kochu as Karen (“A Streetcar Named Desire”), Michael Ring as Tom (“The Great Gatsby”), and Tayah Howard as Beth (“Diary of Anne Frank”). Ashley Gallo and Michael Gallo are featured as the children's voices. The show is Directed by Patrick Brien, and Assistant Directed by Hope Kaufman. Spencer Weitzel is Designer and Editor.
So just what makes this play so universally popular? Seems that everyone relates to these themes. When it threatens to be schematic and predictable, it is anything but; and what would seem to be a light comedy about friendship and shifting loyalties becomes instead a surprisingly touching rumination about the changes that come with age: the changes redefining relationships, the changes within relationships, the impact new relationships have on old, and the balances and affections that shift unexpectedly, just because, despite our reluctance to want to accept it, life goes on. Many people even consider the play a zeitgeist pop culture phenomenon, similar to the movie “The Big Chill” from the early 1980s.
Surprisingly, despite its generic moniker, Donald Margulies’ "Dinner with Friends" seems more substantial now than ever. Hard to say whether that’s because it has ripened like the tomatoes and wines it so obsessively considers — “What do you think of the Shiraz?” — or because time has ripened audiences into a deeper consideration of its sweet-and-sour midlife themes. Probably both. At any rate, it’s delicious.
Forgive the inevitable culinary metaphors. Gabe and Karen, a happily married, middle-aged couple who live in Connecticut, are food writers, and most of the play’s seven scenes include the making, eating, and especially discussing of fabulous meals. Margulies gets the couple’s smug mavenry dead on: “The authority with which she handled every onion, every red pepper...,” marvels Karen of an Italian crone they visited in Rome. It’s hilarious, pathetic, and also quite natural that big moments in their lives are cross-referenced under the meals that went with them: The failed hors d’oeuvres at their wedding, the lemon-almond-polenta cake tonight. And when, as that dessert is served near the beginning of the play, and their best friend Beth tearfully reveals that she and her unfaithful husband Tom has split up, the mavens can hardly process it. “We all just went out to eat together,” cries Karen in disbelief. “That Indian place in Branford. We loved their chicken tikka masala” — as if the deliciousness of dinner should prove a talisman against this kind of disaster.
Meanwhile, Tom, who had been away on business, finds that Beth has told their friends about the looming divorce, and immediately hastens over to Gabe and Karen's home. Tom and Beth had planned to tell their friends about their breakup together, but Tom now believes that Beth has unfairly presented herself as the wronged party, and feels he must present his own side of the story.
The time flashes back 12 years to a vacation home on Martha's Vineyard, when Karen and Gabe introduce Beth to Tom. Over the course of the play, both couples are seen at different ages and stages of their lives. The breakup affects Gabe and Karen too, who first feel compelled to choose sides, but then begins to question the strength of their own seemingly tranquil marriage. They also begin to see the real meaning behind their friendship with Tom and Beth.
Beth’s shocking news — that Tom has taken up with a stewardess (who is actually a travel agent) and intends to stay with her, abandoning Beth and their own two young kids — tosses the more stable couple into a sauté of anxiety. As Beth and Tom by turns argue their case, each hoping to claim the friendship as if it could be part of a settlement, Gabe and Karen are forced to undergo a dangerous reexamination of things they thought had long since been settled. Or, if not settled, buried. For if, as they discover, they didn’t really know Beth and Tom except by assumption and triangulation, they may not really know each other.
This reexamination — and the willingness or unwillingness to participate in it — is the heart of the play. Beth and Tom have no choice because Tom has exploded their assumptions; surprisingly, as they rebuild their lives without one another, they become different and apparently happier people. Beth is relieved to give up the artistic pretensions that had defined and limited her since youth. Tom, rejuvenated by his new girlfriend, looks years younger and tries on New Age attitudes of the sort he once despised in Beth. “It’s like his body’s been snatched and he’s been replaced by a pod,” says Gabe. Neither he nor Karen can accept the fact that divorce appears to be an option in this case. Even a bad marriage, they seem to feel, is worth preserving, at least for the sake of their friends.
Though “Dinner with Friends” has many whimsical moments, it is too meditative to be called a comedy. It works its spell not only by perfectly timed turns of the plot but by letting its questions about friendship and marriage seep through the entirety of the play and beyond. The director manages this difficult task beautifully, never allowing the actors to reach too hard or forget what’s at stake. And the actors, exceptionally well cast to match each other, manage the tricky business of playing self-unawareness without risking facetiousness.
In the showier parts, Ms. Howard and Mr. Ring give petulant Beth and seedy Tom the required volubility; they make selfishness seem somehow justifiable. As Karen and Gabe, Ms. Kochu and the brilliantly low-keyed Buczynski remain immensely likable even while demonstrating unpleasant truths. One of which is that competent couples sometimes befriend incompetent ones because the incompetents’ defects, being worse, make their own look survivable. “Every Karen needs a Beth,” as Beth eventually says. Or, as the play suggests: The family you’ve chosen is just as fallible as the one you were born into.
I’ll drink a glass of Shiraz to that. With a slice of that lemon-almond-polenta cake.
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report