By Joel Benjamin
Why should we spend two hours with four whiny, petulant, pedantic, irritating and self-centered people? Because they’re also fascinating and, as written by Donald Margulies, food for thought, whether we like them or not. As these two couples, four old friends with long, involved pasts come clean with each other—at least as clean as their egos will let them—their lives crumble and they have to rethink their long-held and cherished ideas about marriage…and life. The Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of this incisive and beautifully observed work, now on stage at the Laura Pels Theatre, is directed with a light hand by Pam MacKinnon who also brought Clybourne Park to life two seasons ago. This production of the Pulitzer Prize winning play is intriguing and revealing.
When first seen, Gabe (Jeremy Shamos) and Karen (Marin Hinkle) are going into near sexual ecstasy recounting to Beth (Heather Burns), their closest friend, their food adventures in Rome and Florence, at first ignoring Beth’s obvious discomfort. Beth finally blurts out that she and Tom (Darren Pettie), her husband, are splitting up because he’s gone off with another woman. Gabe and Karen are distraught, but not as distraught as Tom is when he finds out that Beth spilled the beans, giving her the “emotional advantage” with Gabe and Karen. When Tom storms over to his friends’ house late that same night to give his side of the break-up, he begins to apply a subtle wedge between Gabe and Karen that comes to fruition in the quiet, moving final scene, the two of them in bed hashing things out only to fall back on their old rituals.
Margulies takes no sides. Each character is equally at fault and equally a victim of not only their spouses but their friends’ frailties and outlooks on life. We even get to go back in time to see Beth and Tom meeting at Gabe and Karen’s Martha Vineyard house, making it clear that the relationship was always built on shifting sands, which shifted more and more as they lived together, had kids and fell into habitual behavior patterns. Did Tom cheat and run off with another woman because Beth became physically cold toward him? Did Beth cheat on Tom with an old flame, the one she winds up with after the divorce? Is Karen on to something when she feels that Gabe doesn’t know how to communicate with her anymore? And, has Gabe reconsidered his marriage after hearing Tom extol his new life with his new lady?
Margulies unapologetically writes about every annoying nook and cranny of these self-involved peoples’ lives with an ear to their jargon and a feel for their class and financial security. Certainly this would have been a different play had he chosen to write about the less fortunate classes. Poor people have other things to think about -other than naval gazing or how to beat the eggs for a flourless dessert. Even though Margulies gets us to care for these four, there is always the undercurrent buzz that their social class allows for their self-indulgent philosophizing.
The four actors seem more evenly matched than those in the original off-Broadway production. Jeremy Shamos gives Gabe a slightly hangdog, sweet quality that doesn’t quite hide the doubt in his eyes. Marin Hinkle, as the den mother Karen, is sharp tongued, but needy. The Beth of Heather Burns has many sides: first disheveled and needy and by the end, glowingly confident. Darren Pettie’s Tom is a good looking devil whom he makes not quite the villain he is accused of being.
The handsome production includes perfectly wonderful costumes that subtly tell as much about the characters as the dialogue. Allen Moyer’s sets are extravagant, rolling in and out and up and down, but also help to reveal much about the characters’ ideas about how to live their upper middle class lives, from the perfectly equipped kitchen of Gabe and Karen to the understated bedroom of Tom and Beth.
*Photo: Jeremy Daniel
Dinner With Friends (through April 13, 2014)
Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre/
Laura Pels Theatre
111 West 46th St., between 6th & 7th Aves.
New York, NY