Works that penetrate the façade of normalcy in marriage are nothing new to American theater audiences. In the 1938 classic Our Town, Thornton Wilder pioneered what we now call "relationship drama" when he placed a young couple at the altar and allowed the audience to listen in on their innermost thoughts about marriage, turning a common wedding ceremony into a gripping juxtaposition of estrangement, fear, hope, and love. Playwright Donald Margulies' Pulitzer Prize winning Dinner With Friends echoes Wilder in some ways, but more than 60 years later, Margulies has more invested in his play than merely rehashing the well-worn themes of the transience, brevity, and shallowness that can mar human relations. In a series of dynamic dialogues, he has helped redefine what it means to be married in contemporary American society.
Dinner With Friends has been a great success off-Broadway largely because the structure of the three-act play shows off Margulies' mastery of dialogue. Other than in an act 2 flashback scene, the actors almost always appear in pairs. What better than snappy patter to ward off the potentially boring linear turmoil of a relationship drama? Unfortunately the actors in this production at West Palm Beach's Cuillo Centre For the Arts don't provide enough stage presence to complement the nuances the script offers. The result is a performance that at times feels more like a TV dinner than the delectable display of surprising and contradictory flavors that brought the play success.
The first scene begins a series of emotional upheavals that take place throughout the course of the play. During an elaborately prepared gourmet dinner at the home of Karen (Susanna Frazer) and Gabe (Michael McKenzie), Beth (Gayton Scott) collapses into a sobbing heap and announces to her hosts and long-time friends that her husband Tom (Peter Bradbury) is leaving her for a younger woman. The moment calls for some histrionics, but even so, Scott goes way over the top. Beth is supposed to be a woman with a secret beneath her smiling, chardonnay-sipping veneer. What we get is a woman who turns her back to her dinner companions and makes grimaces at the audience to show her despair. Scott's approach is so self-conscious, one wonders if it is intended to be comic; if it is, it doesn't fit Margulies' tone.
The awkwardness of the first scene gives way to a more controlled energy in the next, which delivers one of the strongest moments in the play. As antagonism turns to passion in this heated scene between Beth and Tom, we get a glimpse of the many facets of relationships this play strives to expose. As Tom later confides in Gabe, "Rage can be an incredible aphrodisiac." By the end of the first act, all four actors hit a stride that, while not riveting, is unencumbered and engaging.
Dinner With Friends works best when it examines not the married couples themselves but rather the consensual, near-familial bond between the two pairs. Margulies treats marriage as a social phenomenon, creating dramatic opportunities beyond the standard he said/she said shouting matches. As in most of Margulies' plays, the theme of loss drives the plot. Gabe and Karen, the putative "happy couple," actually have the most to lose: namely the makeshift family built by the two couples over 12 years of friendship, child rearing, vacationing, and of course dinners. Several times throughout the play, both Karen and Gabe express to Beth and Tom sentiments such as, "I thought we were in this together for life." Beth and Tom, each of whom is ultimately happier pursuing other relationships, respond with something to the tune of, "Isn't that another way of saying misery loves company?" Their divorce itself is not such a big deal (good riddance; they couldn't stand one another anyway), but its effect on the foursome is devastating. As Beth tells Karen, "Congratulations. The family you chose is just as fucked up and fallible as the one you were born into."
The emotional tension begins to escalate when both Beth and Tom try to explain to their counterparts what it's like to feel passion again after being unhappily married for so long. To Gabe's dismay (and titillation), Tom catalogs the sexual renaissance he has experienced with his new lover. Gabe betrays his fascination through comments such as, "Well, I guess we can't all let our id run wild" and "Do you two ever talk?" As a philanderer Tom makes a convenient bad guy, but he wins the audience's sympathy with his energized new outlook on life.
Such exchanges underscore Margulies' skill at showing more than one side of any relationship. Likewise, when Beth accuses Karen of liking her only when she is unhappy, the women begin to unearth buried resentments -- which ultimately brings a new dimension to their friendship.
When Gabe and Karen come together after their respective meetings with Beth and Tom, we feel a new tentativeness between them. Unfortunately the lack of energy between Frazer and McKenzie prevents them from plumbing the depths of this discomfort. Perhaps director Jack Hofssis has sculpted these characters too literally from the script; we see their outward stability but not enough cracks in the foundation. Gabe is not just laid-back, he is desperately lonely. Karen is not merely an overly conscientious homemaker, she is a woman who hides her insecurities by taking care of others. When Karen calls Gabe to bed, he says, "Coming," but instead sits down with a glass of wine, choosing solitude in a passive way without asserting his true wishes. Unbeknownst to Gabe, Karen appears in the doorway, almost speaks to him, then leaves. This moment should be ripe with ambiguity, but it isn't. The lack of subtle detail in the actors' interactions renders the moment melancholic at best.
Set designer Jesse Poleshuck has done a good job crafting Gabe and Karen's well-ordered, immaculate haven, but Beth and Tom's domicile looks too much like a restructured version of their friends' place. A starker contrast might have revealed more variation in their private lives. The more realistic the set, the more a play risks looking like a well-made sitcom that, despite its changeability, feels static. Add to this the unnecessary sound effects of kids and cars and you get the canned feeling of a TV studio set.
Fortunately the fracture in narrative structure that takes place in act 2 bolsters the play's emotional strength. Flashing back to the day Gabe and Karen introduced Tom and Beth to each other 12 and a half years ago, Margulies offers the audience a poignant reminder of exactly what his characters have lost. This manipulation of time gives the audience added insight into the characters -- and provides a nice change of pace from acts 1 and 3, which are dialogue-driven.
While Margulies' well-sculpted script renders Dinner With Friends more engaging than your standard-issue relationship drama, when it is over, one has the sense of having spent an hour and a half looking into someone's kitchen or bedroom window, minus the prurient pleasure of voyeurism. Aren't there enough failed relationships, messy divorces, and wrecked friendships in our daily lives? Do we look to the stage to see characters we already know or those who will reveal something new to us about ourselves? Realism minus artistry doesn't provide the space for new realities to take root.
The George and Emily of Our Town are long extinct as sociocultural representations, but as two human beings struggling with the question of what it means to be married, they penetrate an emotional reality that still feels relevant. The actors in Dinner With Friends definitely get below the surfaces of their characters, but they lack the degree of subtlety needed to meet the challenge Margulies' script offers them.
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