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Dinner With Friends Review: Love letter to the terrors of marriage

Near the end of “Dinner With Friends,” an insightful comedy that restores the word “adult” to its rightful meaning, Gabe confesses to his wife Karen that he’s fallen out of love – not with her, but with his best friend.

In the Roundabout’s satisfying revival of Donald Margulies’ Pulitzer Prize winning play, Marin Hinkle and Jeremy Shamos portray Karen and Gabe, a happily married couple who learn that their best friends, the couple Tom and Beth, are decoupling. Beth (Heather Burns) breaks the news to them during dinner when Tom is away on business; Tom says he has fallen in love with a stewardess, she tells them. Tom (Darren Pettie)  is incensed when he learns that Beth has told their best friends the news without him. He rushes to tell them his side of the story; for one thing, the woman he’s dating is not a stewardess; she’s a travel agent. It becomes clear that Tom and Beth value their friendship with Karen and Gabe far more than they do their relationship with each other.

For their part, Gabe and Karen take the failure of their friends’ marriage very hard. Gabe and Tom have been buddies since the first day of freshman orientation some 25 years ago.  Karen and Beth worked together in a publishing company, forming a strong bond. It was Gabe and Karen who arranged the first date between Tom and Beth. They have been doing everything together, as two couples, then two families, for the past 12 years.

”We were supposed to grow old and fat together, the four of us, and watch each other’s kids grow up,” Gabe complains to Tom.

“It’s not like I’m dead, you know,” Tom says.

But something has definitely died here, and part of the humor and the beauty of the play is in seeing how much more affected Gabe and Karen are about the break-up than the couple who actually broke up.

They begin to look at their own marriage: What does “happily married” even mean?

“Dinner With Friends” offers more than an exploration of marriage. It is a subtle exploration of the tensions between characters who think they know one another long and well, and learn that maybe they don’t.  The play asks us to look at the way that one’s perceptions can shift, even if only slightly – and how that can be enough to upend one’s basic assumptions.  This works for the characters…but also for the audience.

Under Pam MacKinnon’s direction, the four actors are so finely attuned to the nuances of their characters that it would be misleading to sum them up by the easy labels that lazy journalists might affix to them – Karen and Gabe foodies by profession, perfectionists by temperament; Beth a dilettante masquerading as an artist; Tom a narcissistic lawyer. They are people who fly around the world for work, and summer on Martha’s Vineyard – the kind of people depicted in a glossy magazine ad that one itches to deface.

Jeremy Shamos, veteran of both “Clybourne Park” and “The Assembled Parties,” is rapidly becoming one of those actors who by his presence signals a quality production, but all four of the actors have just-right moments.  One occurs during a flashback 12 years earlier,  when Tom, who starting in college used to steal all of the women that Gabe secretly desired, approaches the recently-married Karen while she’s cooking, and gently brushes aside her hair, twice. “What are you doing?” Karen asks. This could easily have been jarring or overdone, but Pettie and especially Hinkle underplay it to perfection. It seems a very revealing moment to us, thinking about the play later, but it’s a throwaway moment to them.

Near the end, during that scene where Gabe confesses his disaffection, he and Karen are talking while they prepare for bed, folding a bedspread in perfect unison like some kind of two-man Olympic team, so practiced in the act that they are unaware of it. What they are aware of is how petrified they are — of their marriage, of what they’ve become, of what will happen to them. But if they’re terrified, they’re terrified together, clinging to one another — a scene that is inconclusive, and touching.

“Dinner With Friends” was first presented at the Humana Festival in Louisville, and then Off-Broadway in 1999.  More recent productions of Margulies’ work include two on Broadway in 2010:  a revival of  “Collected Stories” with Linda Lavin as a famous writer and Sarah Paulson as her ambitious protégé, and  “Time Stands Still with Laura Linney as an injured war photographer and Brian d’Arcy James as her partner, who meet their long-time friend (played by Eric Bogosian) and his new, much younger girlfriend. One can squint and almost see it a sequel to “Dinner With Friends.”

What these plays have in common is that they are written for and about adults. “Adult” has come to mean pornographic – such as “Intimacy” a few blocks away – or boring. But, as “Dinner with Friends” demonstrates, it can mean shaded, understated, and stimulating.

Dinner With Friends
At the Roundabout Theater’s Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theater, 111 West 46th Street
By Donald Margulies
Directed by Pam MacKinnon; sets by Allen Moyer; costumes by Ilona Somogyi; lighting by Jane Cox; music and sound by Josh Schmidt; hair and wig design by Charles G. LaPointe; fight director, Thomas Schall;
Cast: Heather Burns (Beth), Marin Hinkle (Karen), Darren Pettie (Tom), Jeremy Shamos (Gabe) and Alex Dreier and Aimee Laurence (Children’s Voices).
Running time: two hours, including an intermission.
Tickets: $82
Dinner With Friends is scheduled to run through April 13

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About New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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