The Gap Between Boredom and Commitment

By David A. Rosenberg

If you want to get some idea why Tipper and Al Gore separated, see “Dinner With Friends” at Westport Country Playhouse, but don’t take the kiddies. Despite drawbacks in the production, Donald Margulies’ frank and insightful Pulitzer Prize comedy-drama shrewdly probes the narrow gap between boredom and commitment, betrayal and trust.

On the surface, the work is a boulevard comedy, the kind that used to flit in and out of Broadway on a regular basis, offering laughs and comfort to the bourgeoisie. But Margulies merely uses these trappings to dig into the bristling, roiling waters of obligation. There’s real poignancy here and fear, fear of splitting apart and, more significantly, fear of staying together.

Forty-something Karen and Gabe are a seemingly well-adjusted, competitive couple with two children. Food writers, they’ve just returned from a trip to Italy where they picked up tips on gourmet cooking. Regaling their close friend Beth with their adventures, they cap off that evening’s meal with an exotic dessert, oblivious to the fact that Beth has dire news she’s aching to tell them.

Beth’s husband, Tom, having fallen in love with a travel agent, wants a divorce. Shocked, Karen and Gabe who, after all, introduced their friends to each other 12 years ago, not only blame the absent Tom (he’s supposedly on a business trip) for the breakup but glimpse an abyss into which even their relationship could fall.

Later, Tom confronts Beth (they also have two children), angry that she told Karen and Gabe about their problems without his being there. Their argument escalates not into further isolation but arousal. The friendship is further ruined when Gabe realizes that his vision of the four of them growing old and fat together is forever squashed, while the liberated Beth accuses “Miss Perfect” Karen of having cared for Beth only as long as she was an arty, incompetent mess.

In outline, plot and characters are ripe for laughs. But sadness and terror creep in and the work takes on aspects (and ending) of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” Both plays envision a husband and wife clinging to each other to ward off isolation and the unknown.

Unfortunately, Westport director David Kennedy is better at detailing the play’s outer core than its inner shell. He has not found the key to unlocking the box into which his characters have hidden what scares them most and misses the ritualistic aspects of Karen and Gabe’s relationship. His final scene, instead of evoking unease and pity through its rituals, is merely cozy and soothing.

As Karen, Jenna Stern, every hair in place even when cooking, is a model of efficiency and rectitude. Maintaining her cool, she melts only when the games she plays with her husband take her to a place she’d rather not go. As Gabe, although he lacks a certain rumpled exterior, Steven Skybell is a man confused by not knowing whether he is anchored or not, and to whom. You can sense the discomfit in the upright way he holds himself in public and how he collapses when no one is around.

As Tom, a lawyer, David Aaron Baker goes light on the character’s caddishness, but shows a remarkable transformation from laid-back ladies’ man to agitated husband to someone who wears his new-found freedom with delight. As Beth, despite an unfortunate second-scene shouting match with Tom that starts so high it has no place to go, Mary Bacon revels in the character’s constantly on-edge neuroses. Her confessional scene with Karen is a gem.

This is a first-class production, from Lee Savage’s scenery to Matthew Richards’ lighting, Emily Rebholz’s costumes and Fitz Patton’s anxiety-laden music. All work in tandem with a play that subtly asks questions about the conflict between restrained civilization and unbridled impulse. It’s to Margulies’ credit that the answer is ambiguous.

            This review appeared in The Hour, Thursday, June 10

 

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