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 on the altar and allowed the audience to listen in on their innermost thoughts about marriage, turning a simple wedding ceremony into a gripping juxtaposition of estrangement, fear, hope, and love. Donald Margulies's Pulitzer Prize-winning Dinner with Friends echoes Wilder in some ways, but some 60 years later, he is interested in more than simply rehashing the well-worn themes of the transience, brevity, and shallowness that can mar human relations. In a series of dynamic dialogues, Margulies has helped redefine what it means to be married in contemporary American society.
Dinner with Friends has been such a success off-Broadway largely because its three-act structure shows off Margulies's mastery of dialogue. Except for a flashback scene in Act Two, 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 bring enough stage presence to complement the nuances offered by the script. 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 raves off-Broadway.
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, announcing 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. Instead what we get is a woman who turns her back to her dinner companions and 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 so it doesn't fit Margulies's 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 to 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 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's 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 twelve years of friendship, child rearing, vacationing, et cetera. Several times throughout the play, 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 happier pursuing other relationships, respond with something along the lines 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 each other anyway), but its effect on the foursome is devastating. 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 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 catalogues 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 outlook on life.
Moments like this underscore Margulies's skill for 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 sense a newfound tentativeness between them. Unfortunately the lack of energy between actors Susanna Frazer and Michael McKenzie prevents them from exploring the depths of this discomfort. Perhaps director Jack Hofssis has molded these characters too literally from the script; we see their outward stability but not enough of the 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 passively, without asserting his true wishes. Unbeknownst to Gabe Karen appears in the doorway, almost speaks to him, and then leaves. This should be a moment 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 did a fine 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, seems static. Add to this 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 Two bolsters the play's emotional strength. Flashing back to the day Gabe and Karen introduced Tom and Beth to each other more than twelve 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 one and three, which are dialogue-driven.
While Margulies's well-sculpted script makes Dinner with Friends more engaging than your standard-issue relationship drama, at the end one has the sense of having spent an hour and a half looking into someone's kitchen or bedroom window, without 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 characters who will reveal something new to us? 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 a portrayal of two human beings struggling with the question of what it means to be married, they penetrate an emotional reality that still feels relevant. Although the actors in Dinner with Friends definitely take their characters below the surface, they lack the degree of subtlety needed to fully meet the challenges of Margulies's script.
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