Donald Margulies' "Dinner with Friends", winner of last season's Pulitzer for Drama, is more like a series of gourmet lunches, tasty but not particularly filling, each from the same menu, but not necessarily the same ingredients. Please excuse the trite metaphor, but some modes of expression are contagious. The touring production , with a handsome set by Neil Patel for each scene, seems more like a sequence of related one acts, or perhaps a series of New Yorker cartoons. When its over, there's no feeling of having watched a play.
Not that the director, Daniel Sullivan, hasn't crafted individual moments of action with his usual aplomb. Nor has the ensemble cast, Dana Delaney (Beth), Kevin Kilner (Tom), Daniel Stern (Gabe), and Rita Wilson (Karen) failed to play each scene professionally, making the most of each beat. However the innate ambiguity of the text provides very little upon which to build a drama. Which is peculiar, because most scenes, there is a specific argument in the rhetorical sense. But when the time comes for conclusion, the author opts for fashionable ambiguity.
The problem lies chiefly in how characters are drawn, or more precisely, specified. Karen is a gourmet chef, Gabe her husband, a food (and travel?) writer. Together they seem to do quite wellexactly how is never explained. Beth is an artist, commercial and fine, married to Tom, a generic lawyer. Her work is only described in disparaging terms and there's no information as to exactly what lawyering Tom does on his frequent and remunerative trips to D.C. Family backgrounds are sketchy, and only the briefest details surface about how the boys met as frosh and the girls at Karen's publisher. It's up to actors and directors to create playable circumstances from the dialogue alone. Thus each cast can create an extremely different show. The actor playing Tom gets to decide what actually led this character to decide to abandon his family. The actor playing Gabe gets to regret it.
The current cast comes to the piece from several backgrounds. Delaney, still best known for "China Beach" on TV played Karen off-Broadway, but here takes the more emotive part of Beth. Kilner made his Broadway debut as a deeper "Tom" opposite Julie Harris in "The Glass Menagerie", but is more recognizable as the hero of the first year of "Earth: Final Conflict", one of Roddenbery's posthumous sci-fi projects. Stern has an amiable track record going back to "Breaking Away" in '79 and "Diner" in '82, with stage work off-Broadway including "True West". Wilson is recognizable from a variety of film roles, but has done a bit of Shakespeare. Since the play is mostly conversations, the cast works at a vocal level more suitable for film or television, which requires a level of amplification that makes incidentally noises too noticeable and the whole show somewhat distant. Only Stern manages to project his character into the audience, which as something of the author's mouthpiece, he really needs to do.
The most telling scenes in the text are two straightforward conversations in the second act. In the first, Karen and Beth eat lunch (naturally) on the patio. In the previous scene, the first after the intermission, Beth and Tom meet at Karen and Gabe's summer cottage on the Vineyard. In scene two Beth appears much happier without Tom and has a new man, a former partner of Tom's She also has the courage? to tell her best friend that "Every Karen needs a Beth", implying that she's merely been someone convenient to look down on. But what is the truth. In the third scene, Gabe and Tom meet in a clubby bar. Tom claims, in response to Gabe's mention of family concerns, that Beth had an affair with the new man a decade before. Gabe has no good response, but finally gets to be a grownup, sort-of. Though Kilner has the most immediate, if somewhat monotonous, stage presence, Stern has far better timing, though he too could use a little more vocal variety. Neither scene, both of which present what might be true contemporary moral dilemmas, including "what about the kids?!" does more than catalogue problems
As the author, who teaches playwriting at Yale, has admitted he doesn't really know what to think of these people. The script began in '98 at a Humana New Plays Festival. It still has a workshop feel. These are the scenes that worked. And they do, in and of themselves. But there needs to be a third act. Having abrogated character development to the actors, Margulies seems content to leave the denouement up to the audience, after they leave the theater. Perhaps he should check things out with some undergraduates, many of whom probably come from "blended" families resulting from their parents' mis-marriage as depicted here, to find out what happens next.
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