Buddy Blue

Dinner With Friends puts friendship on trial

Woody Allen called it the death of hope, and if Donald Margulies' dark-hued comedy Dinner With Friends is any indication, Allen was absolutely right: marriage sucks. It's a doomed institution bound for failure, bitterness and emotional paralysis. The passion dissipates, the friendship stagnates, the blissful Sunday afternoons lying naked in bed turn into lifeless conversations about picking up pork loins at the market. As one character trenchantly puts it, "How are you supposed to keep love alive when you're shoveling [dog] shit all day long?"

Of course, that's just my perspective. I'm sure many people leave this show inspired by the fact that one of its two married couples weathers the emotional storm that capsizes the union of their closest friends. Of course, most of those people are sporting wedding rings.

Only the most solitary among us would find it impossible to relate to some aspect of Margulies' finely crafted, if ultimately vexing, play. Marriage is merely the excuse to draw attention to the dynamic at work in any relationship-romantic, friendship, parental. The severed union between Tom and Beth may be the play's precipitating event, but Margulies is far more concerned with how the couple's oldest friends, Karen and Gabe, are affected by the breakup.

And that's where this play rises above any number of contemporary plays about marital discord and the fragmenting family. Friendship is what's really on trial in Dinner With Friends, and what is both most provocative and distressing about Margulies' play is that the stresses and little lies that put a marriage asunder can do the same to a lifelong friendship. And in the milieu of this play, at any rate, that can be as earth-shattering a proposition as losing your sleeping partner.

The play begins in the comfortable Connecticut kitchen of Karen (a nearly immaculate Jane Kaczmarek) and Gabe (a subtext-laden John Carroll Lynch), a married food-critic duo breathlessly recounting their latest culinary adventure-a trek through Italy and the eccentric antics of an 86-year-old arthritic chef who actually crushed a clove of garlic with her thumb!! The audience for this obnoxiously enthusiastic travelogue is an obviously preoccupied Beth (Julie White). During a lull in the conversation, Beth confides to Karen something a bit more important than lamb risotto and almond polenta cake: Tom (T. Scott Cunningham), her absent husband, has left her.

The way Karen and Gabe react to this most unwelcome bombshell establishes their characters and foreshadows the difficulties they will soon encounter: Karen embraces the news, immediately attempting to make Beth feel better-in effect trying to control the situation. Gabe withdraws, absent-mindedly wondering if a hand job in the movie theater may have saved the marriage.

Margulies is a master playwright, feeding the audience information as carefully as a fisherman draws out his line to lure a potential catch. Each of the following five scenes reveals something new and important about his characters. The next scene, in Tom and Beth's bedroom later that night, shows that Beth's perspective on the situation-she believes Tom is on the verge of a nervous breakdown and acting irrationally-isn't necessarily the case.

The truth, as always, is more complex. Tom attempts to get this across in the final scene of Act 1, as he anxiously drives to Karen and Gabe's to give his side of the story. By this time, however, the battle lines are drawn: Karen believes Tom is a monstrous, selfish homewrecker; Gabe is more prone to stand by his friend.

Margulies provides an interesting interlude to begin Act 2: the day 12 and a half years earlier when Karen and Gabe first set up Tom and Beth. In a most effective scene, we see in the electrically awkward moment when two people are first drawn together what will ultimately blow them apart. In this case, it's Beth's flighty artistic personality and Tom's rather dark-tinged duplicity.

The final two scenes, set six months after the play's opening, find a reinvigorated Tom and Beth. They've found new partners, look great, feel better and couldn't be happier. Karen and Gabe, meanwhile, are flailing, unable or unwilling to accept their friends' new lives. The strain is beginning to show on their marriage, and a couple that once seemed perfect now faces doubts and fears that were submerged for years.

Director Dan Sullivan (who, if you're taking notes, is one of the finest directors in American theater today) directs with grace and creativity. Margulies doesn't write plot-heavy plays; his plays are intimate, dialogue-driven affairs, and Sullivan never lets the pace slacken. He brings out the humor in the script; yet even as funny as this play can be, I couldn't shake the melancholic, almost desperate feel that was made physical by Pat Collins' often-somber lighting and Michael Roth's evocative musical bridges.

The character of Gabe captures the story's gravity, and Sullivan emphasizes it by casting Gabe alone onstage at key moments. Gabe is the most afraid of change and, apparently, most affected by what's happening. He's also the one who can't quite seem to fully articulate what he's feeling. That's the scariest part: he's almost a mute onlooker to this slow evaporation of friendship. While you feel that he's the one who most wants things to stay the way they are, he's also the one most incapable of expressing it.

With all the good things in Dinner With Friends, I felt one minor disappointment: once again, we're presented with a play populated by the same kind of characters-educated, affluent, articulate-who dominate so many new plays at major theaters these days. No, you don't have to live with an incontinent grandmother in a Stanton trailer park in order to lay claim to true pain and desperation, but there's a whole world of experience seemingly unknown to the world of educated, affluent and articulate playwrights. Instead of that world, we retreat inward, recycling the pain of the upwardly mobile over and over again on the stage. Margulies has proven himself adept at writing the intimate contemporary play about life-challenged urban intellectuals; I'd daresay he and Richard Greenberg are the best playwrights currently working in that milieu. But until he stretches his canvas and approaches something different, tackles characters he doesn't know so well, and forces himself into undiscovered territory, I fear his plays will continue to feel like this one: well-polished, well-oiled and well-manufactured, but without so much as a glimpse of a Stanton.

Dinner With Friends at South Coast Repertory Theatre's Mainstage, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Through Nov. 22. $18-$45.

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