DINNER WITH FRIENDS
By Roz Friedman
Rediscovering a jewel is always exciting. Thus is the case with the new revelatory production of Dinner with Friends at the Westport Country Playhouse. As a member of the Outer Critics Circle, I voted for it for Outstanding Off Broadway Play in 1999, and the playwright, Donald Magulies, won the Pulitzer that year. However, the sparkle of this play, directed so tautly by Associate Artistic Director David Kennedy that it seems as if the characters are balancing on a tight wire, shines even more brightly than I recalled. Dealing with the intricacies of marriage, divorce, love and friendship, its scenes, accompanied by Fitz Patton’s Original Music, unfold smoothly.
Scene one, entertaining and powerful, we meet Karen and Gabe, played beautifully by titian- haired Jenna Stern and Steven Skybell. In a shiningly clean white kitchen designed by Lee Savage and lit by Matthew Richards, they are gushing over the gourmet wines they are drinking and foods they are cooking inspired by the trip they have just taken to Rome. Their dinner guest is best-friend Beth, a part Mary Bacon infuses with warmth and veracity. From upstairs, we can hear the sounds of children: two from each family. Tom, Beth’s husband and Gabe’s closest friend, is not present; he is ostensibly on a business trip to Washington, D.C. Before dessert, Beth breaks down and admits that after 13 years of marriage, Tom, acted ebulliently by David Aaron Baker, has left her for Nancy, his travel agent, who hangs on his every word and other parts. Since Karen and Gabe fixed this couple up and spend every summer on Martha’s Vineyard together, they are greatly disturbed. Tom has turned hostile and uncompromising in his intentions to leave Beth and their way of life.
In the second scene, Tom, unable to fly out due to the snow, returns to his home, and despite enraged fighting, he and Beth engage in a “close relationship.” The third scene segues back to Karen and Gabe’s living room, where the two, an obviously loving couple, are trying to figure out how to deal with Tom, who visits them to plead his case. Karen wants nothing to do with him; Gabe wants to hear him out. Tom insists dramatically that he and Beth have been estranged for a long time and that this new relationship has saved his life. He even hates Beth’s art, to which she is devoted.
The first scene in the second act zooms back 12 ½ years when Beth and Tom meet in newly-married Gabe and Karen’s home on the Vineyard. The four actors, costumed by Emily Rebholz, are convincing as these younger people just beginning their adult lives. Perhaps the most telling scene is the one in which Gabe and Tom meet in a Bar in Manhattan. Tom is overtaken with his new lifestyle; although Gabe is appalled that Tom could leave his family-so selfishly and tells him so, Tom is not swayed. At the same time, much to her friends’ surprise, Beth has rekindled a love connection from years before. In the end, the playwright has created an honest examination of love and marriage in Dinner with Friends that cuts close to the grain. It will play at the WCP through June 19.
This review originally aired on WMNR 88.1FM FINE ARTS PUBLIC RADIO