The Secret Lives of Couples

Photo by Jean HauserInfidelity in marriage is the Achilles' heel of America's middle class, a redoubtable vulnerability that threatens the whole rickety edifice of this romantic union we've dreamed into being in the past couple of centuries and that, like a bomb in a terrorist's backpack, can devastate all at once the workaday peaceful world around it—our children, our friendships, the illusions of stability we work so hard to create and sustain. No wonder, then, that it's become the Great Subject of bourgeois literature and entertainment, from Tolstoy's Anna Karenina in the novel and Ibsen's Hedda Gabler in drama, to Bergman's Scenes From a Marriage in film, devolving and devolving until we get down to, well, Desperate Housewives.

I hate it when people complain that plays about infidelity and marriage are a dime a dozen, that they're “only” about the personal. Given the nature of marriage, which is self-protective and therefore prone to immure itself through mutual self-delusion, stories about the secret lives of couples are perfect for the theater (particularly small-budget, black-box, 49-seat theaters like the Orange Curtain's), where we can watch, as through a window, the intense dramas of other people's private lives, through all their cycles of romance, lust, love, disappointment, betrayal and reconciliation.

Donald Margulies' play Dinner With Friends, which won a Pulitzer back in 2000, is about infidelity as contagion—about how a man cheating on his wife can, like a virus, infect not only his own marriage but that of his closest friends. A densely written ensemble piece for four actors, it begins with one couple (Rudy Kiapeta and Sheryl Wynne) babbling about a European trip to their good friend (Michelle Nesthus), whose husband is conspicuously absent. The couple's dialogue, often overlapping, flitting on about wines and recipes, captures both the sweet and annoying qualities of comfortable, complacent marriages, and it comes to a rude halt when the friend breaks down with the news that her husband (Rick Kerrigan) has left her. From there, the play rides on an inevitable logic, as Margulies delves into the ways such an announcement affects the relationships of man and wife, friend and friend, doing justice to both the surfaces of their public masks and the whispered revelations of their bedroom selves. The play has so many crosscurrents going on that the actors have to be unusually resourceful in weaving together the new skein of relationships that the infidelity forces them to create—Kiapeta's probably the only one here who really manages it—but the ensemble, together with director Jean Hauser, does an honorable job of it overall. Dinner With Friends doesn't go easy on us, and it gets increasingly uncomfortable to watch, as it should be. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if it caused a fight or three among the couples leaving the theater, which is also as it should be.


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