Playwright Donald Margulies has a way of building emotionally charged moments that begin benignly, even innocently, and then before you know it—bam, right in the kisser. His Dinner with Friends playing at the Olney Theatre Center does just that, portraying the impact that a couple’s deteriorating relationship has on their friends. The play reflects how the ties that bind extend farther than we realize. Familiar family rhythms are suddenly jolted into an uncomfortable new dynamic when friends hit the skids of a painful breakup. This very simple premise takes on enormous dimension as the play exposes the impact of infidelity and hurt from one couple to another, almost virus like.
All four actors are accomplished veterans of Olney’s stage but the show-stopping coupling of Julie-Ann Elliott and Paul Morella is a treat almost too tasty for words. What these two actors do with a nuanced glance, a pause, a hesitant reflection or delayed reaction speaks volumes. As Karen and Gabe, they are the stable couple around which the other couple revolves. Karen has rock-solid confidence in her roles as wife and mother while having her share of control issues. Gabe has let his own needs and wants melt into a comfortable, complacent lull. As Karen, Julie-Ann Elliott flashes bright and sunny smiles while describing their recent travels to Italy, extolling the wonders of culinary cuisine, correcting details, and commandeering the household.
Everything changes when their best friends reveal marital problems that have extended deep into the territory of irreconcilable differences. Karen’s entire demeanor changes as she sides with her best friend Beth, played with convincing pathos by Peggy Yates. Karen’s once sunny disposition turns somber, her mood darkens, and her eyes shift with a distrusting and judgmental glare. Her masterful performance is perfectly matched by Morella’s layers of introspection, unspoken queries, and bits of mystery. What did he know about his friend’s dalliances and when did he know it? The questions pop like firecrackers while the playwright explores the roles of friendship and fidelity with revealing passages about the characters’ sex lives (or lack of such), the thin lines between love and rage, and lamentations about utter loneliness despite being locked in marital bonds.
How could two married couples who have been friends vacationing together for years, with children intermingling like siblings, not see this coming? The compelling script, winner of the Pulitzer for drama in 2000, shows what happens as the individuals come to grips with their own sense of being in a marriage, their wants and needs, their perspectives about the other couple, and even their own identity. Margulies covers a wide swath of territory, providing tender glimpses of the couples in their early loving stages, before children, mortgages, and family responsibilities. Showing us what they were like in younger carefree days clarifies who are they now and who they are becoming.
Astutely directed by the always reliable Jim Petosa, the play unfolds with a natural ease and shifts from somber to light and breezy while tackling tough issues along the characters’ interior journeys. There are no villains here, no stark contrasts of good and bad, just abundant hues of gray, the color of the border elements of the stage, which brings us to the wonderwork set design by James Kronzer, who accommodated a different setting per scene, with very minimalist touches in a revolving set. An abstract jangle of lines crisscrosses everything – the floor, ceiling, even the windows – like jazzy riffs matching the plaintive saxophone renditions selected by sound designer, Christopher Baine , including John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” How appropriate. Costume designer Howard Vincent Kurtz uses color and style effectively to reflect each character’s evolving emotional state, mixing and matching the colors and designs on cue.
The only weak link is the catalyst character Tom played unconvincingly by Jeffries Thaiss with too much playful bounce, very surface, almost Richard Simmons—like. It’s a complicated role that requires attention to get the balance just right to relay the conflicted messages and do justice to the actor’s sizeable talent which he demonstrates in later heartfelt interactions with Gabe. The men’s concern for each other, how they grapple to listen and understand each other between the lines, even their empathy is so real it’s palpable. Gabe and Karen could only wish to be so open, trusting and vulnerable with each other.
Olney Theatre Center, which has either produced or co-produced all of Margulies’s professional area premieres, can now count Dinner with Friends as its most recent success.
Dinner With Friends
By Donald Margulies
Directed by Jim Petosa
Produced by Olney Theatre Center
Reviewed by Debbie Jackson
Dinner with Friends runs thru Sept 26, 2010.
Click here for Details, Directions and Tickets.
DINNER WITH FRIENDS