Saturday, February 22, 2014

Off-Broadway Review: Donald Margulies' "Dinner with Friends"

Dinner with Friends
Written by Donald Margulies, directed by Pam Mackinnon
Performances through April 13, 2014
Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, New York, NY

Pettie, Burns, Shamos and Hinkle in Dinner with Friends
(photo: Jeremy Daniel)
Donald Margulies’ marvelous Dinner with Friends is such a psychologically and dramatically acute play that—despite its 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and rave reviews for its New York premiere—it appears to be less than the sum of its parts. Margulies’ artful construction of his tragicomic drama about how the disintegration of one marriage leads to soul searching in another fits together so smartly that it comes off (to some, anyway) as a mere clever conceit. But this remarkable play is anything but, as the Roundabout’s unmissable revival demonstratively shows.

Married couples Gabe & Karen and Tom & Beth have been best friends for 12 years, since the former couple set up the latter during a Martha’s Vineyard weekend. The play begins as Beth blurts out to her two friends after a scrumptious dinner that Tom—missing since he’s away on business—wants a divorce because he’s screwing a stewardess. (Turns out she’s a travel agent.) After he discovers that Beth spilled the beans without him there to defend himself, Tom goes to their house late that night to tell his side of the story because, as he says, Beth—who spoke first—now has the upper hand: he’s right, as Karen’s disgust at his arrival shows.

The play covers a lot of narrative ground in two hours—even showing that fateful Vineyard introduction to begin Act 2—but its magnificence stems from its covering (and uncovering) fertile psychological terrain in such a natural and unforced way that it might appear facile to the undiscriminating.

The dialogue among these four heartrendingly real people (always a Margulies strength) is penetrating, poignant and often priceless in its humor. Take this tart exchange when Karen reacts negatively to Beth’s news that she is getting remarried…too soon, for Karen’s taste.
KAREN: I spent years trying to get away from my family and my last ten doing everything I could to make a family of my own. I thought if I could choose my family this time, if I could make my friends my family.
BETH: Congratulations. The family you’ve chosen is just as fucked up as the one you were born into.

Or Gabe and Karen discussing Tom’s revelation that Beth was cheating early in their marriage.
KAREN: We saw them practically every weekend in those days, when would she have had time to have an affair?
GABE: I don’t know—during the week?

Margulies’ ability to create three-dimensional characters—also on display in Collected Stories and The Model Apartment to Brooklyn Boy and Time Stands Still—is second to none. And in director Pam Mackinnon’s keenly-observed staging—greatly assisted by Allen Moyer’s superlative sets, whose fragmented look underscores what these two relationships are becoming—the cast is unsurpassable. Darren Pettie’s Tom adroitly treads a fine line between unredeemable and believably contradictory; as Beth, Heather Burns gives a textbook lesson in delicately playing a wife unmoored from her husband: no tics or mannerisms, just a naturalness that’s as becoming as it is affecting.

Marin Hinkle, as Karen, expertly navigates the landmines which appear as her well-ordered world buckles when her friends break up, forcing her to reevaluate her own marriage. And Jeremy Shamos’ Gabe is a subtle psychological portrait of a man who—as Karen tellingly notes—doesn’t say much. Whether silent or speaking, Shamos gives an honest glimpse of a husband who realizes that, while his marriage might not be perfect, it’s his life and he’ll try and make it work.

Donald Margulies is a peerless observer with fresh insight into familiar subjects, and Dinner with Friends is a particularly rich mine of discovery for his characters—and for us.

No comments: