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Thursday, 20 September 2012 11:39

The one about the divorce: 'Dinner with Friends'

Written by Andrea Braun
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It is true that no one knows what goes on in other people's marriages. And when couples decide to split, everyone immediately worries about the effect on the children and, of course, the husband and wife. But these are not the only casualties when a marriage goes off the rails. What about the friends? Who gets 'custody' of them? How will this refiguring of the divorcing pair's relationship affect their married pals?

Dinner With Friends, Donald Margulies' Pulitzer Prize winning play (2000) receives a sensitive reading by director Gary Barker and four outstanding actors; Sarah Cannon (Beth) and Chad Morris (Tom) who are getting divorced and Michelle Hand (Karen) and Christopher Hickey (Gabe) as their closest friends. The couples are approaching 40, both married about 10 years (Karen and Gabe slightly longer because Tom and Beth met through them) and they have done everything together during their marriages - dinners, having kids at the same time, vacations, and so on. The four also had previous connections to each other through Beth and Karen being work friends and Tom and Gabe being buddies since freshman orientation on the first day of college. We don't think about this kind of dynamic often, but I think it's fair to say that we do, in a way, actually fall in love with our friends or maybe it's more accurate to say with our friendships.

Either way, when a distraught Beth breaks down right before dessert after dinner at Gabe and Karen's house (Tom is on a business trip, she's told them), the two are shocked to learn that Tom is dumping her for a 'stewardess.' (That's not exactly accurate, but this is the first instance of what we see throughout this well-crafted play - there are always at least two sides to every story, and maybe even more.) Karen immediately judges Tom, leaping to Beth's side, and she isn't interested in even giving Tom a hearing. At this point, Gabe doesn't say much. Throughout we see the dynamic between them. She talks; he is quiet. He is playful and brings that out in her. She's controlling and he is, if not controlled exactly, much more easygoing. They do bicker, but it is without rancor. They do love each other, but the shock of their friends' situation shocks them.

Later in the same evening that Sarah has fallen apart in front of Karen and Gabe, Tom returns to his and Beth's house because of bad weather at the airport. Their interaction is both predictable and unpredictable. After he finds out that she has talked to their friends without him though, he drives over to their place in a snowstorm to tell his version of events. He's furious that she didn't uphold her end of their agreement to tell them together so a reaction like Karen's could possibly have been avoided. Karen wants nothing to do with him and goes to her room, but Gabe gives Tom a chance to explain. The rather conventional Gabe hears some things that surprise him, but also Tom's story begins to make him think about marriage in general and his own in particular.

The top of Act II flashes back to newlyweds Karen and Gabe at their house on Martha's Vineyard the evening they introduce Tom to Beth. He's a buttoned down lawyer type who still seems to carry a distinct air of frat boy about him, and she's a nature-loving, New Age bohemian artist. They don't have much in common but they click right away and a foursome is born, destined as we now know, to die 10 years in the future. Each actor is attuned to the nuances and details of both his or her younger and older personae, and little details and bits of business - a look here, a touch there, a hesitation - help us to know their characters as human beings who strike familiar chords with us.

Time passes, and on one particular day, the women meet for lunch and the men get together after work for beers. There's some awkwardness because they haven't seen each other in months, but also because Karen and Gabe are stunned by what their one-time closest friends have to say. These scenes do seem a bit long, but they are insightful and wise. It seems that the divorced pair are the ones who have learned who they are and what they want, while Gabe and Karen's marriage, though it is the center of their lives, seems static. But Gabe's final speech to Tom is filled with common sense, an acknowledgment of a sad reality, and an excellent commentary on coming to terms with midlife disappointment, regret and fear.

Dinner With Friends is an ambitious production in terms of sets for a smaller company, but the design and execution of major set reconfigurations are done as well as I've ever seen. Jason Coale designed the movable walls and myriad details to create two bedrooms, a living room, a beach house, a restaurant and a bar with minimal disruption to the mood of the play during changes. I feel like carpenters, painters and running crew should have received a round of applause. Lights (Nathan Schroeder) illuminate each space gracefully and Jane Sullivan's costumes help define the characters, as well. Peggy Knock as properties mistress assisted by Barbara Malta had quit a chore to handle too.

You may not always like these characters, nor should you because they are all flawed in their own particular and communal ways, but you will care about them and think about them and yourself after the curtain is down. We've all known people like these, and we may even have had their experiences. Renegotiating relationships is a universal concern, and Barker - an excellent actor himself and a college professor of acting - seems to have turned these four actors loose to fully inhabit their roles. I was absorbed, even though I've seen the show before and was less impressed. Dramatic License can be enormously proud of this one and I hope you'll consider joining them for 'dinner.'

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