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Perhaps, if you've chosen a life of monastic celibacy or hermetic isolation, you may find nothing relatable in Dinner With Friends, currently enjoying a superlative revival at Palm Beach Dramaworks. But for the rest of us – the majority of the population who yearn for human contact and love, well aware of the devastating risks they engender – Donald Margulies' acute dramedy is a shattering portrait of domestic conflict and its inevitable ripples. It's a play that poses many tough questions, and it's bold enough to let us answer them ourselves.
The play, set in Connecticut in the late '90s, opens on affluent couple Karen and Gabe (Erin Joy Schmidt and Jim Ballard) as they pontificate to their friend Beth (Sarah Grace Wilson) about their recent culinary adventures in Italy, over plates of exotic dishes and appropriately matched wine. Karen and Gabe are foodies – Gabe writes about dining for a living – and they resemble David Brooks' bourgeois bohemians, or "bobos." They probably support public radio and centrist Democrats, they use words like "amorous" instead of "horny," and they even own a vineyard. They're comfortable in their status as elite, worldly intellectuals, holding dominion over lower-class painter Beth, who couldn't cook a book. Among his many observations, Margulies acknowledges that most friendships have hierarchies.
Beth's husband Tom (Eric Martin Brown) isn't joining the dinner with friends tonight, ostensibly thanks to a business trip to Washington. But Beth drops a bombshell: Tom has left her, abandoning their 12-year marriage, during which they, like Gabe and Karen, had two kids. Unbeknownst to her, Tom had been unhappy for some time, Beth says, and he found the marriage deadening. Worse yet, he's seeing someone else – "a stewardess!" "That's so tacky!" Karen exclaims.
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Anyone who has been involved in a major break-up knows that, when dealing with mutual friends after the split, a kind of gender tribalism takes over. Gabe wants to hear the full story from Tom, but Karen instantly becomes a voice of commiseration for her emotionally battered friend. As an audience that hasn't even seen Tom yet, we tend to fall under the same spell of righteous indignation.
Tom, who appears in the next scene to meet Beth in their broken home after his flight was canceled, doesn't do much to alter our prejudice. Agitated that Beth revealed their split alone rather than together, as planned, Tom starts a rousing verbal battle full of acid-laced insults. Tom is a picture of ugly, floppy-haired, boorish aggression. Some people are just dicks, apparently, and Tom is as phallic as they get. He perpetuates this tone later that evening, when he speeds over to Gabe and Karen's to deliver his side of the story, of which Karen will hear nothing. If you believe the spouses, Beth is as frigid and hypercritical as Tom is cowardly, and that's that.
There is something apocalyptic about the demise of an established marriage. Like a miniature emotional nuke, it reverberates well beyond the couple's bedroom, affecting everyone close to them. It makes their friends reflect on their own seemingly complacent arrangements. The boilerplate for this kind of drama is Ingmar Bergman's 1973 Scenes from a Marriage, which inspired Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives (1992).
While these films -- Bergman's especially – skillfully perused the emotional wreckage of the post-breakup landscape, Margulies is more interested in delving beyond the instant gratification of fights, tears and resolutions, preferring to explore the characters' cerebral natures with an observant scalpel. The play's revelations are not big and grandiose – there are no tidy messages to take home with you – but they are more profound, and more deeply humanist, than their cinematic brethren. It helps that Dramaworks' cast, divided equally between South Florida regulars and out-of-towners, is so impeccable. Ballard has never been better as Gabe, bringing the play's least showy, most reclusive character to vivid life. Wilson, in her Florida acting debut as Beth, strikes a perfect balance between her polarized archetypes: the emotionally bruised victim and, in the play's second act, a new woman radiating self-confidence.
Indeed, as Dinner With Friends continues, Beth and Tom find a renewed joie de vivre from their ashes of their divorce, while Karen and Gabe try to soldier on through the banality of domesticity Tom managed to escape. As they listen, separately, to their friends' stories of their exciting sex and love lives, you can pinpoint streaks of envy mixed with a pervasive fear that their own marriage – one of routine symmetry, in lovemaking and bed-making alike – could dissolve just as suddenly as their friends'. As Thoreau famously said, most men lead lives of quiet desperation. In this complex, self-reflective mixture of jealousy and trepidation, Margulies has given a poetic voice to this silent majority.