“Dinner with Friends,” Westport Country Playhouse

--Irene Backalenick

“Dinner with Friends” is a mid-life crisis tale—a tale of two couples who
navigate “through the maelstrom” (as playwright Donald Margulies puts it). One
couple survives the difficult journey, the other does not.
          
The Pulitzer Prize-winning drama is now on stage at the Westport Country
Playhouse, and the production is right in every sense—in casting, direction,
design. For those of us who have seen this 1998 drama many times, this
particular production is top of the heap.

Director David Kennedy offers an impeccable cast, with Jenna Stern and Steven
Skybell as Karen and Gabe, the pair who are successful food writers. David Aaron
Baker and Mary Bacon play their close friends Tom and Beth. Fine, human,
believable performances all around. Perhaps because Baker is cast as something
of a villain, his performance proves particularly intriguing. One cannot let go
of him and is involved with him every moment he is on stage.

Margulies, brilliant playwright that he is, plunges right into the story. There
is no long boring expository first act—nor a single wasted word. Gabe and Karen,
having just returned from an exciting Italian trip, are extolling their
experience, as they heap food on Beth’s plate. As Beth sits quietly through the
chatter, she suddenly bursts into tears. Tom has left her. Thus the drama
gathers steam, as Tom’s departure sends shock waves through the other marriage.
Beth and Tom each develop ecstatic new relationships, so they say. But,
strangely, Karen and Gabe feel put upon and take these developments as personal
affronts.

Though Margulies explores the many nuances and subtleties in human behavior, his
pace never falters, and director Kennedy is equal to the task. Despite a series
of short scenes, unfolding in several Connecticut and Martha’s Vineyard
locations, the tempo never lets up. Lee Savage’s charming set design allows for
quick changes, as each set glides on and off stage. All other design aspects are
right on target—with Fitz Patton’s original music and sound, Matthew Richards’
lighting, and Emily Rebholz’s costumes.

Why this emphasis on mid-life? Perhaps because Margulies himself (as well as
friends of his) have experienced these years. In these modern times couples have
high expectations of marriage, as they juggle homes, careers, children,
relationships. It is a subject which strikes home for us all, a subject well
worth exploring.

 

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