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The complexities of marriage and friendship are dissected with wit and intelligence in Dinner with Friends, Donald Margulies’ Pulitzer Prize-winning 1998 play being given an Off-Broadway revival by the Roundabout Theatre Company. Director Pam MacKinnon’s (Clybourne Park, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) sensitive production fully mines the work’s subtle depths while serving as a strong showcase for its quartet of veteran New York stage performers.
The play, which was made into a 2001 HBO movie directed by Norman Jewison, concerns the relationship between two married couples: food writers Gabe (Jeremy Shamos) and Karen (Marin Hinkle, of Two and a Half Men), whose apparent domestic bliss is signaled by their easy camaraderie as they prepare gourmet meals; and artist Beth (Heather Burns) and hotshot lawyer Tom (Darren Pettie) whose marriage, as we learn via Beth’s tearful confession during dinner with her old friends, is breaking up. It seems that Tom, who travels frequently for work, is leaving her for a travel agent.
The next scene takes place later that night in Tom and Beth’s bedroom, where she’s surprised by his unexpectedly showing up, his planned flight to Washington, D.C. derailed by the winter weather. Aghast to learn that she’s sprung the news about their marriage to their friends without him — “You prejudiced my case,” he argues in lawyerly fashion — he demands to know the details of the encounter, including the exact nature of the dinner fare. The resulting heated argument ends with the pair clinched in a passionate embrace.
Shortly thereafter Tom shows up, again unexpectedly, at Gabe and Karen’s house, where he tries to deliver his side of the story. Gabe greets him warmly if warily, quickly preparing him a leftovers dinner, while Karen treats him with undisguised hostility. Gabe is flabbergasted upon hearing of the couple’s just-finished romantic encounter, considering their situation. “Rage can be a potent aphrodisiac,” Tom informs him.
Act 2, depicting Tom and Beth’s initial meeting, begins with a flashback set twelve years earlier at Gabe and Karen’s summer home in Martha’s Vineyard to which they have each been invited for the weekend. Despite their vastly different temperaments — she’s a flighty bohemian, while he’s sardonic and cynical, it quickly becomes evident that there’s a romantic spark between them.
The action shifts back to the present, with Beth informing a dubious Karen that she has quickly rebounded, falling in love with and getting engaged to an old friend. Tom in turn rhapsodizes to Gabe about his blissful new life, explaining that he was never meant for marriage and children. This all causes Gabe and Karen to quietly reassess their relationship, culminating in a ruminative late night bedroom encounter that is at once tender and disturbing.
While none of the play’s characters are particularly likeable, they’re drawn with an intriguing psychological complexity that feels quietly real and is fully exploited by the expert ensemble. Margulies depicts the vagaries of spousal relationships with humor and pathos in an insightful manner that will undoubtedly spur meaningful conversations between couples upon returning home.
Venue: Laura Pels Theatre, New York (runs through April 13)
Cast: Heather Burns, Marin Hinkle, Darren Pettie, Jeremy Shamos
Playwright: Donald Margulies
Director: Pam MacKinnon
Set designer: Allen Moyer
Costume designer: Ilona Somagyi
Lighting designer: Jane Cox
Original music and sound designer: Josh Schmidt
Presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company
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