Donald Margulieswas awarded the 2000 Pulitzer Prize in Drama for his "Dinner with Friends" which is currently playing at The Plays & Players Theatre as Philadelphia Theatre Company's most recent offering. Directed by Mary B. Robinson, this serio-comic play is a highly realistic depiction of the breakdown of a marriage which impacts directly on the dissolution of even longer standing friendships.
The four-character play centers on Gabe (Bryan Dykstra) and Karen (Nance Williamson), and their marriage made in heaven. Gabe is a food critic and Karen a gourmet chef. They cook together, travel the world together collecting fabulous recipes and entertain together by having their friends over to dinner. Here they thrill their guests' palates with their exquisitely savory concoctions. (It would be a mistake to go to this play without having eaten dinner first. The descriptions of food will set your salivary glands in motion and a mere candy bar at intermission will not satisfy the craving.) Moving back and forth in time, we see their best friends, another couple, Beth (Jennifer Rohn) and Tom (Boris McGiver) coming over to dinner at different intervals throughout their marriage. At the outset of the play, Beth reveals to her trusted friends that Tom is leaving her for another woman. Gabe and Karen are heartbroken, as they had a hand in the couple's initial meeting at their beach house on Martha's Vineyard. As Beth and Tom's relationship unravels, so too do the relationships between Gabe and Tom and between Karen and Beth. The play boils down to "the couple that stays together" and "the couple that splits up," and how they inexorably affect each other. Gabe and Karen sadly realize that they must see a mirror reflection of themselves in their friends' lives in order to substantiate their own existence. If Gabe and Karen have suffered through the banality and boredom of their own marriage, why shouldn't their friends?
There is some very good acting going on, most especially by Boris McGiver as the unhappy Tom, who brings to the role a wealth of unspoken pain and longing. Mr. McGiver has been seen by PTC audiences previously in "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" as the unaffected Pato. Nance Williamson as the controlling, judgmental Karen has just the right amount of perfect hostess and doting Mother Hen to soften her steely core which lies just beneath the surface. Jennifer Rohn is appropriately touchy, angry and selfish, as we realize the disintegration of the marriage is initially due to her philandering.
Unlike the play which is ultra-naturalistic, I found the sets to be more of a comment on the evening. The first scene is an expanse of living room/dining room in Gabe and Karen's home which consists of high walls of light colored wood in which there are no windows. This gives the enclosed, claustrophobic feeling of a basement or a bomb shelter. The second scene is the bedroom of Beth and Tom's house and again there are no windows. The third setting is a kitchen in Gabe and Karen's vacation house on Martha's Vineyard. Here there are no walls, but rather one gigantic window revealing a blue expanse of sky. Were the first two sets supposed to depict the entrapment of marriage? The third scene on the Vineyard takes place when Gabe and Karen are newlyweds and Beth and Tom first meet, hence; everything is open, new and possible? Well, that's what I got from David P. Gordon's sleekly suggestive sets.
Eavesdropping at intermission, it was apparent that anyone who has been through a divorce can totally relate to the very humanistic truisms that Beth and Tom experience. The jealousy over who will maintain the dominant relationship with their gourmand dinner buddies, the uninhibited rage that can lead to great sex, and the fact that couples who are separated and even divorced do still sleep together. But, this play may not appeal to everyone. I am probably out of step with the rest of the Theatre world, but, personally, unlike the meals described and consumed in the play, I found it to be vaguely unsatisfying. It is the same feeling I have for "trompe l'oeil" painting. Though I find it fascinating to look at and always wonder how the artist could ever have achieved it, I still never find it moving for the very reason that it is "too real" -- like a docudrama or a slide under a microscope. However, for those of us who have had friends who have gone through a similar experience, or for married couples who want to put the magnifying glass up their own relationships, it can be a bit of an eye opener.
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