Dinner with Friends

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Dinner with Friends

Dinner with Friends. Laura Pels Theatre (see Off Broadway). By Donald Margulies. Directed by Pam MacKinnon. With Heather Burns, Marin Hinkle, Darren Pettie and Jeremy Shamos. Running time: 2hrs. One intermission.

Dinner with Friends: In brief

A married couple gets sucked into the vortex of their close friends' impending divorce in Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of Donald Margulies's 1999 dramedy, which won the Pulitzer Prize. Pam MacKinnon (Clybourne Park) directs a cast comprising Heather Burns, Marin Hinkle, Darren Pettie and the yeomanly Jeremy Shamos.

Dinner with Friends: Theater review by David Cote

As the two couples in Dinner with Friends might marvel, what a difference 12 years can make. That’s how long one of their marriages lasts before it implodes, sending aftershocks of doubt rippling through the other. In my case, 14 years marks the shift. Back in 2000, I found it hard to believe that Donald Margulies’s ultrasquare boomer drama could win the Pulitzer Prize. However, since I enjoyed this Roundabout Theatre Company revival, something must have changed for me, culturally and personally. Proof, which I reviewed a year after Dinner opened, felt like the return of the well-made, mainstream play. It was possible to appreciate solid, naturalistic dramaturgy as well as jagged, nonlinear stuff. Marriage has evolved too; it’s no longer an exclusionary hetero affair. And those of us who scoffed at Margulies’s bourgeois tidiness? We’ve matured. We’re older, less pretentious; perhaps we got married.

But the core reason why the new Dinner succeeds is obvious: a director and four actors are listening carefully to the text and gracing every nuance with intelligence and sensitivity. We know, from her superb 2012 staging of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, that Pam MacKinnon can laser in on the interplay of loving and loathing. And you couldn’t ask for a more perfectly cast foursome: Jeremy Shamos and Marin Hinkle as the comfy-to-complacent food writers Gabe and Karen, and Heather Burns and Darren Pettie as struggling artist Beth and discontented lawyer Tom, respectively.

There’s fine character work all around. Shamos wisely tempers his genius for squirmy-mensch comedy with Gabe’s genuine domestic anxieties. A warm and sympathetic presence onstage, Hinkle plays up Karen’s judgmental, snooty side. (She has a weakness for fancy Latinate locutions; trepidatious, decimate and duplicitous pepper her lines.) On the other side of the nuptial equation, Pettie’s regular-dude Tom makes a strong case for razing a loveless marriage, even if his reinvention strikes a callow note. And Burns, whom I’ve adored since 2001’s Lobby Hero, makes no excuses for Beth’s ditzy narcissism, which may land her with a different version of Tom. That Beth and Tom find postdivorce happiness only makes Karen and Gabe wonder if their own union is built on swampy ground. Dinner with Friends is a string quartet, and these are well-tuned instruments.

All this scrupulously realistic acting is nicely offset by an abstract design. Allen Moyer’s interiors are arranged on mobile pallets that slide in and out of an off-white, neutral box. This blank frame suggests both emotional sterility and Tom and Beth’s attempt to wipe the slate clean. Jane Cox’s lights create a homey glow within each location, and Josh Schmidt’s precise sound design brings external spaces into the world—kids shouting in an upstairs room, a car pulling out of the driveway. Each scene plays out on its own little floating island in a sea of beige. (The exception is a warm, saturated flashback to more innocent days, when Karen and Gabe introduced Tom to Beth on Martha’s Vineyard.)

A less well-acted, straighter production would point up the limitations of the play, which is insightful if never quite revelatory. Margulies writes to theme with such textbook exactitude, you almost want him to mess it up. He’s too clever to end a scene on a giveaway line (“Too much vanilla?” Karen asks Gabe about a dessert he’s sampling—and subtextually, about their relationship); he lets the action play out for a couple more beats before blackout. But many lines are equally on the nose, and the structure is almost too dutifully contrapuntal and balanced. If you despise well-made plays, you’ll never respect such craftsmanship. But a neat script and a precise staging win the day. I suppose it’s like love: Some couples thrive on fighting and chaos; others cleave to stability. It’s the rare household that can sustain both.—Theater review by David Cote

Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote

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