If breakups were only confined to the couple in question, life would be easier. Throw friends, children, potential new partners into the mix and it really takes a village to visit Splitsville with the inevitable detour into Crazy Town.
Playwright Donald Margulies won the Pulitzer in 2000 for Dinner with Friends, his rueful and sad-funny take on the aftermaths of a single breakup. Margulies updated the play in 2014, refreshing dated references to car phones, video tapes and the like, but the frankness and thought-provoking aspects of Dinner with Friends is as palatable as ever.
Although the play was adapted for television in 2001, it really needs to be seen in a theater and here’s why. Director Vincent Lancisi and a tight ensemble cast bring such intimacy and truth to the production you feel as though that’s you—or facets of you—right up there a few feet away on the stage and you wonder how Margulies and the people at Everyman got access to your most private thoughts and hidden agendas. This would be lost in the safe distancing of a TV screen.
Second, the audience is a play in itself. The “he said, she said” structure of the play, and its carefully calibrated revelations, incite discussion, which buzzed through the audience during intermission and on the way out the door after curtain. In the achingly real second act, when “perfect” married couple Gabe (M. Scott McLean) and Karen (Beth Hylton) talk about how marriage changes with age, time and children, you saw the older couples in the audience reach for each other’s hands or sling a comforting arm around a shoulder. “We’ve been there,” they seem to nod to the actors. “Wait ‘til you see what happens when you’re our age.”
Dinner with Friends mostly takes place in the heartbeat of a home—the kitchen. Donald Eastman’s storytelling revolving set moves to other locations, such as living rooms, bedrooms and houses on Martha’s Vineyard, but it is in the kitchen where most of the play’s heat is generated.
If Gabe and Karen live by one credo, it is “food is love.” While friend Beth (Megan Anderson) tries to squelch the eye rolls, the couple talks of their recent food trip to Italy in orgasmic terms, pronouncing “Pomodoro” in near-pornographic groans and describing an 86-year-old Italian chef in terms usually reserved for those in the adult film industry.
Gabe and Karen’s first instinct is to feed the people they love—to share a meal, to celebrate, to nourish, to dazzle or comfort. After Beth drops a bomb at dinner that husband Tom (Danny Gavigan) is leaving her and the kids for another woman, there’s a pause and Karen says “Let’s have dessert” (an almond polenta cake, in case you’re taking notes).
Later that night, Tom storms over to the house to tell his side of the breakup and Gabe asks “Have you eaten? Let me fix you a plate.” The play is filled with such delectable moments, where in one breath people are spilling their guts and the next they indulge in foodie comments that are almost non sequiturs.
Dinner with Friends
closes April 7, 2019
Details and tickets
Food is everywhere in Gabe and Karen’s lives—it is what they do for a living (food writers) and what they talk about when they aren’t discussing Beth and Tom’s situation. And it’s a doozy—the anger, resentment, dysfunction and toxic incompatibility simmering beneath the polished veneer of this couple is enough to curdle your quiche.
The play centers on the expectations of marriage, but it also delves into the expectations of friendship and the feelings of betrayal and regret when friendships evolve. Gabe expected Tom to be his best friend forever, into fatness and old age, and when Tom is reborn as a responsibility-free boy toy in a relationship with a younger woman, Gabe feels like a contract has been broken.
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Karen and Beth’s friendship is affected as well, as Beth goes from a high-strung, needy second banana to strong and sure. Karen likes being in control of all things, and the power shift unsettles her.
Margulies’ play is structured, as mentioned, like a “he said, she said” and the points of view on all four sides are convincing and you find yourself veering wildly as everyone presents their arguments. Then, Margulies takes you back to the scene of the crime, as it were, and you see what really happened the day Beth and Tom met at the Vineyard home of newlyweds Gabe and Karen, what goes on in various bedrooms and most importantly, what bubbles up when people are performing the everyday tasks of preparing and eating food.
The goings-on would be a potboiler in less measured hands, but Lancisi’s incisive direction and the solid ensemble work keep things riveting and relatable. Hylton is exceptional as the glib and chatty Karen, her calm, Martha Stewart-like pursuit of perfection masking terror that she’s just one step away from howling chaos. The empathetic McLean is her partner in fear, clinging to his wife as an anchor and a weight.
Anderson captures the roiling intensity of Beth, whose unpredictability both attracts and unnerves Tom. Her change is Act Two is remarkable, as she is comfortable in her own skin at last, although it is a bit icky that she attributes her transformation to the new man in her life. Gavigan is so skilled that you cut me-centered Tom a major break, even though he blows his relationship with his wife, friends and children to smithereens. The pain in his voice when he tells Gabe “I hope you never experience the loneliness I felt” leads you to ponder whether we all indeed deserve a little happiness.
That kind of recognition is rare and genuine and one of many rewards of Everyman’s sterling production. No matter if the specifics of the play apply directly to your life or not. A universal theme runs through the play and it’s a lonely one—you never really know another person.
Dinner with Friends by Donald Margulies . Director: Vincent M. Lancisi. Featuring: Megan Anderson, Danny Gavigan, Beth Hylton, M. Scott McLean. Set Design: Donald Eastman. Lighting Design: Harold F. Burgess II. Costume Designer: David Burdick. Sound Design: Sarah O’Halloran. Fight/Intimacy Choreography: Lewis Shaw. Dramaturgy: Lindsey R. Barr. Proper Master: Jillian Mathews. Stage Manager: Amanda M. Hall. Produced by Everyman Theatre . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.