Story: Good times abound for married couples Gabe and Karen and their long-time friends, Tom and Beth. Eleven years earlier, Gabe and Karen had actually introduced the latter pair on a blind date at the former’s summer residence in Martha’s Vineyard, where the four have vacationed ever since. On this dinner party evening, however, Beth has arrived with her two children but without Tom, who is away on business.
While her kids play with the children of Gabe and Karen, Beth tearfully informs her friends that Tom has fallen in love with another woman and is filing for divorce. In disbelief, Karen and Gabe listen to Beth’s interpretation of this dramatic turn of events. Later, Tom arrives to give his side of the story, which is very important for him to relate. In the aftermath of their friends’ breakup, Gabe and Karen hesitantly examine their own relationship as well.
Highlights: Originally presented in 1998 at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Dinner with Friends opened Off-Broadway in 1999, garnering several awards for the production and playwright Donald Margulies. Subsequently, it was honored with the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2000.
Margulies’ two-act drama is extremely well written and presents a director and cast with hearty fare on which they can test their mettle and performance skills. As a result of the high level of perception by director Gary Wayne Barker and the talents of his quartet of players, this Dinner with Friends is a sumptuous feast filled with emotional and intellectual challenges delivered in four delectable performances by the cast.
Other Info: Having seen this work in at least three different productions, it is apparent that Margulies taps into a wellspring of human emotions with a touchy and wide-reaching subject. In America, where every other marriage now ends in divorce, the quantity of failure is matched by the broad range of reasons behind those marital breakups. What crosses one’s mind, though, is wondering how some unions last while others fall apart, and whether the difference in those categories is a large chasm or a tiny crack in the foundation.
Margulies writes with an innate sense not only for dialogue but for the underlying meaning in those words. Under Barker’s keenly incisive direction, the body language and looks of his players are just as important in character delineation as their speeches. It’s fascinating, for example, to observe Christopher Hickey’s growing disillusionment as Gabe with his friend Tom’s (Chad Morris) casual abandonment of his previous life, kids included, as a mistake. Truth is relative, of course, but it’s clear in that scene that the relationship of Gabe and Tom has been as inextricably altered as Tom’s marriage to Beth.
Each of the players is powerful and persuasive in his or her role. We observe how Michelle Hand’s effortless charm and accepting love as Karen change to judgmental and critical rebuke, first of Tom but then later of Beth as well when the latter moves, in Karen’s opinion, too quickly into another relationship. It’s a fascinating and self-protective mechanism that rings with the clarity of real life thanks to Margulies’ writing skills and Hand’s formidable acting range.
Sarah Cannon and Chad Morris each offer rich and complex interpretations to their roles as the disintegrating couple. Cannon’s icy glare and simmering anger as Beth, in a bedroom confrontation with Tom, are matched by his sarcasm and own self-defense mechanisms that culminate in a passionate encounter. Most significant are their reactions in the second act, which is set 11 years prior to the first, as we see how the two interact, or maybe don’t, in their initial meeting, in contrast to the easy banter between Hickey’s Gabe and Hand’s Karen.
Jason Coale’s impressive set design shrewdly accommodates a number of settings through the use of sliding panels, interchangeable walls and removable shelves, highlighted by some handsome artwork,courtesy of Wood Icing visual artists Heather Haymart and Susan Morris, in prop mistress Peggy Knock’s bag of tricks. Jane Sullivan’s costumes are highlighted by Beth’s bohemian look at Martha’s Vineyard, while Nathan Schroeder and Joseph Pini provide appropriate lighting and sound designs, respectively.
Dinner with Friends is as richly textured and multi-layered as some of the fancy dishes concocted by gourmet chefs Gabe and Karen, and just as satisfying and mysterious to the palette. Extra kudos to the cast for staying 'in the moment' on opening night despite a lengthy break necessitated by the mall's fire alarm system.
Play: Dinner with Friends
Group: Dramatic License Productions
Venue: Dramatic License Theatre, Chesterfield Mall upper level
Dates: September 20, 21, 22, 23, 27, 28, 29, 30
Tickets: From $18 to $25 (includes dessert and beverages); contact 636-220-7012 or DramaticLicenseProductions.org
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb