Oh, the Webs Couples Weave
By Geary Danihy
Under the tutelage of artistic director Mark Lamos and managing director Michael Ross, the Westport Country Playhouse appears to have hit its stride. On the heels of the quite delightful musical “She Loves Me” comes a production of Donald Margulies’ “Dinner With Friends,” a production that grabs the audience from its opening moments and doesn’t let go until the play’s final, whispered “Boo!”
Deftly directed by associate artistic director David Kennedy and blessed by a stellar cast, the premise of the show is that we prefer to dine with our companions (from the Latin “com” [with] and “panis” [bread]), our friends, for it is over meals, with our defenses weakened by good food and rich wines, that we tend to share our most intimate thoughts and feelings, something we dare not do in the presence of strangers or, even worse, enemies.
Thus, two couples, Karen (Jenna Stern) and Gabe (Steven Skybell), and Beth (Mary Bacon) and Tom (David Aaron Baker), break bread with each other as vows are broken, confidences shared, flaws revealed and the very nature of marriage is placed under a microscope and both humorously and painfully dissected.
The play opens in Karen and Gabe’s kitchen, with the two regaling Beth with tales of a recent “foodie” trip to Italy. Self-absorbed by their shared obsession, they pay little attention to Beth’s responses until she suddenly breaks down and reveals that Tom has left her. To ease Beth’s pain, as the couple asks questions and commiserate they offer their friend the balm of dessert.
Playwright Margulies has many fish to fry, and he does them all to a turn: there’s the idea of consumption of food as a substitute for emotional contact; then there’s the premise that no marriage exists in a vacuum and that when one suffers an earthquake others are tested by the aftershocks. Over the course of the play, Margulies also dabbles with the idea of Martian men and Venusian women forever fated to wallow in a sea of mis- (or total lack of) communication.
Under Kennedy’s dead-on pacing, and working with outstanding sets by Lee Savage that glide on and off stage, the cast creates snapshots of the two couples in various stages of disruption. From the opening revelatory scene, through various confrontations, a flashback to when Beth and Tom first met (set up by Karen and Gabe), to a final, touching yet disturbing moment as Karen and Gabe settle down for the night, the cast creates tendrils of tension that pull at the couples’ relationships and the audience’s emotions.
Along the way, the audience’s assumptions and presumptions are also challenged, for all is not as it seems (it never is with couples), and whatever feelings audience members may have about what Tom – the cur, the cad -- has “done to” Beth will have to be reevaluated in light of what unfolds during the second act.
Skybell and Stern work exceedingly well together in creating a marriage that has settled into routine, a routine that is challenged by their friends’ breakup. Bacon and Baker also do nice work, though one might ask that Baker be just a bit less histrionic in some of his scenes. One might also squirm a littler during the second act bar scene between Gabe and Tom, if only because it is here that Margulies’ writing takes on a certain didactic cast – as Gabe speaks about the nature of marriage you can almost visualize a neon sign hanging above the two men’s heads flashing: “Message! Message!”
These, however, are minor flaws in what otherwise is an extremely intense, thoughtful production that delivers on just about every level. Such is the strength of the characterizations that as the evening draws to a close you feel that what you have just seen has been happening to your friends, people you have known for a long time. Thus, as the characters struggle to come to some resolution about their lives – both shared and separate – you struggle with them, for you care about them. After all, you’ve dined with them.
“Dinner With Friends” runs through Saturday, June 19. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org.