BWW Reviews: New Britain Rep's DINNER WITH FRIENDS an Unsettling, Satisfying Meal
Donald Margulies’ 2000 Pulitzer Award-winning drama Dinner with Friends has quickly become a favorite of professional theatres, receiving regular remounting since its premiere at The Actors Theatre of Louisville. Surprisingly as a critic and an avid theatergoer, the current production running at the Repertory Theater of New Britain through October 28th was my first opportunity to see the play. Under Dana O’Neal’s direction, this Dinner with Friends is well worth making reservations, despite some minor reservations of my own.
The piece, much like many marriages, is deceptive. What starts out as a kitchen sink drama of four friends rocked by the dissolution of one of their relationships, morphs into an unsettling meditation on traditional marriage. With battles raging in courtrooms and legislatures defining what marriage is and is not, playwright Margulies (a New Haven resident) gently lifts the lid off of the institution and pokes around at the sore spots and scabs that we tend to ignore in favor of pat Biblical and legal interpretations.
The play opens on, well, a dinner with friends. Gabe (Frank Schiavone) and Karen (Christy Donahue) are regaling a distracted Beth (Sally Arlette Garcia) with the minutiae of their recent trip to Italy. Reveling in the perfection of their vacation and superb meal, Gabe and Karen are slow to catch on to Beth’s fragile state until she erupts in tears and announces the collapse of her marriage to her absent husband, Tom (Peter Weidt). As her shocked hosts are thrown for a loop, Beth details Tom’s infidelities and betrayals.
Of course, Tom is immediately cast as the villain, smashing the seemingly ideal foursome’s idyllic friendship. What we learn over the next two acts reveals something more complicated that says as much about the fragility of Tom and Beth’s marriage as it does about the stability of Gabe and Karen’s perfect union. Gabe clearly wrestles with unspoken thoughts about Karen, while Karen lashes out at Beth and Tom for pulling the curtain aside to expose the rotting beams holding up their collapsing relationship. As Tom and Beth separate and find happiness apart, Gabe and Karen are left to question whether or not the quotidian doldrums of marriage allow for happiness or a slow, silent suffocation. Is security and stability an adequate tradeoff for passion and freedom?
It’s a tough question to ask, but The Repertory Theater’s production invests you in the quartet and continually surprises with unexpected observations and revelations. The women in the cast are superb. Christy Donahue’s flinty and not-entirely-likeable Karen bristles the most when her Norman Rockwell-cum-Martha Stewart world starts to crack. Her metamorphosis from certainty to frailty tracks beautifully. Sally Arlette Garcia’s Beth is the cast stand-out with a performance that bounces from tearful to hilarious to liberated. Garcia’s look, voice and demeanor add the necessary quirk to a character that may not entirely be a victim.
The male roles are slightly more problematic. Frank Schiavone renders a conflicted and pained portrait as Gabe. Initially thrown by Karen’s anger at their friends’ breakup, Schiavone mulls and stews over what the event says about his own marriage. One senses, thanks to Schiavone’s performance, that maybe there are a few skeletons in Gabe’s closet. The casting trouble comes into play only with Schiavone’s age. The four characters should be about the same age, at the same point in life. With Schiavone appearing to be quite a bit older than the other three cast members, it throws off the balance.
Peter Weidt’s performance as Tom is the weakest table leg holding up this Dinner with Friends. Part of the problem lies with O’Neal’s decision to make Tom more of a tomcatting philanderer. The forced intimacy of his first encounter with Beth and his constant staring at her posterior makes him an unlikable cad never worthy of his wife. I don’t think this was Margulies’ intent to have the character dismissed as a total horndog, thereby undercutting any sympathy we may have for the guy. The other issue is that Weidt is simply not as natural a stage actor as his castmates, leaving his performance feeling more actor-y rather than assured.
Despite my misgivings, Dinner with Friends is a hearty, filling theatrical meal that will give you (and your loved one) a lot to chew on.
Photo of Frank Schiavone and Christy Donahue by Larch Purinton.