Imagine that George and Martha from Virginia Woolf invited the squabbling couples from God of Carnage over for a spot of dinner and some Hitchcock-style mystery and you pretty much have Dinner, a carnivorous, hysterically funny Moira Buffini play done by the hot new company, 4615.
You may remember Buffini for Handbagged, her astonishing story about Margaret Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth II, which had a resoundingly successful run at Round House earlier this year. As brilliant as that play was, this is better: a raucous examination of humans at toxic play; the idylls of the rich displaying the impoverishment of their souls.
On the surface, this appears to be a grand dinner, which Paige (Alani Kravitz) gives for her husband Lars (Matthew Castleman) upon the publication of his new book. She invites Hal (Joshua Simon), a microbiologist who at one time was married to her best friend but who threw her over in favor of Sian (Morgan Sendek), a news presenter on the BBC. And there is Wynne (Charlene V. Smith), an artist and old friend of her husband.
Paige was hoping and expecting that Wynne would bring her lover, Bob, who is a member of Parliament; but Wynne and Bob have just broken up. It seems that Wynne had included a painting of Bob’s genitals in her most recent exhibition (Wynne describes herself as belonging to the “eroticist” school of art), and, worse, identified her subject (by calling the painting “Bob Patterson’s Cock.”); Bob’s objection was not to the pubic exposure but that they were not properly represented. (“It’s impressionistic”, Wynne explains).
Wynne’s greatest artistic gift is for self-dramatization, and every hyperbolic note she sounds — whether pontificating on her artistic theories or giving a tone-deaf narrative on how she lost her virginity — rings false. (This is a special actor’s challenge, which Smith handles well: to authentically play a character whose most obvious trait is her inauthenticity). Paige tortures her mercilessly (when Wynne says how pleased she was to be invited, Paige responds “Well, it was Bob I really wanted to meet.”)
But Paige is not free from dissimulation either; in fact, the whole dinner is a lie — including its design in honor of Lars’ book, which appears to be a fatuous self-help tome which urges people to think of themselves as gods and to “deflect” any challenge to their godliness, whether merited or not. Paige’s seeming affection for her guests is also a lie; she hates them all. And her reputation as a gourmet cook — my God! Did Bob ever dodge a bullet!
She begins with Primordial Soup — onion, celeriac and parsnip, with algae and sulfur (It’s self-regenerating, Paige points out, and emits oxygen: put it on Mars and in a billion years you would have a paradise). For the entree, there is a moral conundrum; for dessert, commentary. I can’t get more specific than that.
In fact, everyone at this dinner, with one exception, lies constantly. But this lying is the only decent thing that these dreadful people can do. The one truth-teller, Sian (she is a journalist, after all) is a human scourge, and her fealty to the truth makes her appear like a fifth-grade tattletale.
For a moment, we think we will meet another honest character when Mike (Jared H. Graham), a Scottish truck driver who has driven his vehicle into a ditch, comes to the house to ask for a phone. Paige, after some persuasion by Lars, invites him into Hell’s dining room and Mike thereafter shows that a charming working-class man can confabulate with the best of his so-called betters.
There is a twist at the end of the play which I will bet you a bowl of Primordial Soup you will not anticipate.
closes August 25, 2018
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Reading this, you may well wonder how you as an audience member could possibly identify with any of these morally compromised characters. But, weirdly, you might identify with not one but several — with Lars, who is the most put-upon; with Mike, who decides to return the class-based contempt he feels, with Sian, repelled by the world of falsehood that surrounds her, or even with Paige, whose rage and hatred is the furious engine of this story. They are all sinners, to be sure, but then again, aren’t we? This was the trick Albee was able to pull in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and Buffini is no less proficient at it here.
What makes it easier is the quality of the performances — uniformly good and as crisp as a ripe cucumber off the vine. The reliable Stevie Zimmerman directs, and her hand shows: the characters are fiercely responsive to each other, coming in sharply on each other’s lines but in a way which makes both clear and distinct. Kravitz and Castleman are particularly good at this, establishing both their characters’ essential nature and their relationship to each other from the very first moment. Kravitz delivers Paige’s opening paean to Lars’ book without a drop of irony, and yet you can tell that she disdains the book and hates the author. Castleman’s Lars responds with seeming gratitude, yet you can tell that he cannot wait until Paige is out of the room and out of his life.
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The other actors do fine work as well, particularly Graham as the unexpected guest. His Scottish burr is not required by Buffini’s text but is a bit of an inside joke. 4615 is doing Dinner in rep with The Scottish Play, where Graham plays the title character.
That this superb production is coming from the hands of a company that is barely a year old is some of the best news that DC theater lovers have had in years. In fact, in the thirteen years I’ve reviewed plays for DC Theatre Scene, I can think of only two companies that have gotten this good this fast. One is 1st Stage and the other is Constellation. And you know what’s happened with them, don’t you?
Dinner by Moira Buffini, directed by Stevie Zimmerman . Featuring Brenden McMahon, Alani Kravitz, Matthew Castleman, Charlene V. Smith, Joshua Simon, Morgan Sendek and Jared H. Graham . Costume design by Benjamin Weigel . Lighting design by Dylan Uremovich . Scenic and props design by Brian Gillick . Sound design by Jordan Friend . Eamon Abramson is the master electrician . Susannah Clark is the dramaturg . Ari Rowe, assisted by Anne Donnelly, is the stage manager . Danielle Gallo is a directing summer apprentice; Katie Abramowitz, James Hedlund and Jack Russ are acting summer apprentices . Produced by 4615 Theatre Company . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.
The actors in Dinner turn around and play Macbeth, both in rotating rep at 4615 Theatre Company.