Dinner with Friends starts off innocently enough with a couple describing delicious meals from their recent European excursion. These folks are serious foodies and recount the exquisite Italian cuisine, perfectly complemented wine selections, and top it off reciting actual recipes. Their dinner guest is obviously missing a plus-one and listens patiently to the jabber, smiling sweetly, trying valiantly to show interest and engagement until the truth will be contained no more when she blurts out—her husband Tom is a no-show, not just because of the business trip, but he’s left her, the kids, their marriage, and is filing for divorce. No warning, no notice, no counseling, no consideration—at least to her. Everyone is flabbergasted. When? What’s going on? How could this happen? Welcome to the world of Donald Margulies’ 1998 play where life perpetrates as ordinary and is anything but.
Dexter Hamlett and Aly B. Ettman are Gabe and Karen, the stalwart dinner hosts who are the last to know about the vitriolic turmoil in their best friends marriage. The actors have a comfortable way of being with each other, like old friends, with neat timing, comfortable physical connection, listening and touch that actual couples would envy.
They listen to Beth, the excellent Alyssa Sanders, as she tearfully confides that Tom has apparently moved on and has already coupled with another woman! All this is heady news for Gabe and Karen – the couples have constantly been in each other’s lives for years, the kids play together like cousins and all vacation together. How could this happen? What were the signs? Nothing is clear or certain except that Beth has been wronged, right? Well…
The ever reliable Bruce Rauscher plays Tom who enters the next scene confronting Beth in their bedroom. Tom feels betrayed that she would break the news to their dearest friends without him. He’s so intent to tell his side of the story, that –get this—he visits Gabe and Karen that very night to set the record straight. Who’s right and who’s wrong? Is there a right and wrong in love and marriage? The Pulitzer Prize winning Dinner With Friends wrestles with people at the juncture of defining life choices, using realistic dialog, and nuanced characters. The production covers the emotional territory with deliberation and care, and characters vacillate along the roving continuum of trust, love, mutual respect and rage.
The playwright’s time device of showing the characters twelve years earlier at the top of the second act is tricky but director Kristofer Kauff guides the actors who subtly drop clues that foreshadow the meltdown that will occur later in time. My only qualm has to do with pacing. While the first act was more explosive with emotional roller coasters of betrayals and urgency, at times, direction by New York based Kauff was uncharacteristically slow in moving through the exposition and framing the characters. Portions of the packed emotional declarations in the second Act seemed to settle into stagnant patches.
The direction was more effective in plumbing through the emotional depths of the characters helping them express ever revealing aspects of their true natures.
Dinner with Friends
closes October 2, 2016
Details and tickets
Production values are deliberate and effective too. The play opens on a beautifully set dinner table, complete with wine glasses and a parallel kitchen counter ensemble. The next scene is a bedroom, then a coastal vacation home again with dinner accoutrements, and scenes in between, ending in the second couple’s bedroom.
Set designer Dan Remmers differentiated spaces and places for each of the scenes with a folding couch that doubled as a bed and a table that tucked to the side. Slight pauses for the numerous scene transitions were potentially wearying, but the designers made such effective use of the black box space that the time was warranted (but that means the pacing can’t afford to lag). David Jung served double duty as Stage Manager and Sound Designer bringing the howling winds of a storm dangerously close, rattled the window with a realistic car door slamming, and even the comforting lull of a sea shore in the second act. Lighting by Peter Caress brought a full team effort to share this significant story.
Celebrating its fifth season, Peter’s Alley Theatre Productions is gaining a foothold and a following on the theater scene. Porch secured notice at the Fringe, their Time Stands Still and Collected Stories both by Margulies and other stellar productions showed their depth, and the upcoming season promises even more to come.
Dinner with Friends by Donald Margulies . Directed by Kristofer Kauff . Featuring Aly B. Ettman, Dexter Hamlett, Bruce Rauscher and Alyssa Sanders . Lighting Desig: Peter Caress . Sound design: David Jung . Scenic Design: Dan Remmers. Costumes: Aly B. Ettman . Projections: Austin Fodrie. Production Stage Manager: David Jung. Produced by Peter’s Alley Theatre Productions . Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson.