Marriage on Stage

Dinner with Friends offers an intimate view of two marriages and four friendships, examining the loyalties, fears, passions, and habits that keep couples and friends together. Marriage is a popular onstage subject, the backbone for many of the last century's most iconic plays. Domestic drama as we know it today may be traced back to Henrik Ibsen's 1879 play A Doll's House. The play, which follows an unequal and eventually unsustainable marriage, was a radical critique of 19th-century marriage norms and set the stage for the realistic plays (many of them domestic) of the 20th century. Below are a few examples of notable marriage-centric plays from the last hundred years. Whether funny or heartbreaking, they are inherently, undoubtedly dramatic.

1930: Private Lives by Noël Coward

Five years after their divorce, Elyot and Amanda have moved on and married new partners. When the play begins, both couples are on honeymoon. They quickly realize they are staying in the same hotel-in rooms with an adjoining terrace. They rekindle their romance but soon fall into old patterns.

Poster from the 1968 revival of Private Lives, featuring Al Hirschfeld's drawing of the playwright, Noël Coward.

1962: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee

A middle-aged couple, George and Martha, come home drunk after a university faculty party. A younger couple, Nick and Honey, stop by for a late drink, and the night dissolves as George and Martha viciously argue, using their new acquaintances as weapons in their fight.

1963: Barefoot in the Park by Neil Simon

Corie and Paul Bratter have just gotten married and are moving in together for the first time. The comedy traces the first days in their new apartment as they renegotiate the balance of their relationship in suddenly close quarters.

1978: Betrayal by Harold Pinter

In reverse-chronological order, the play follows the marriage of Emma and Robert and the long affair between Emma and Robert's friend, Jerry. Though Robert and Emma have spoken of the infidelity, Emma lets Jerry believe the affair is a secret. Their relationship continues for years, with Emma deceiving her lover even as he believes he is deceiving her husband.

Opening night of Roundabout's production of 'Betrayal' (2001). Photograph featuring Liev Schreiber, Juliette Binoche, John Slattery and Director David Leveaux.

1982: The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard

Life imitates art: Henry has just written a play about the breakup of a marriage that features his wife, Charlotte, as the leading actress. Meanwhile, in real life, Henry is having an affair with their mutual friend Annie, who is also married. When word gets out, Charlotte and Henry divorce, and Annie and Henry get married. Two years later, pettiness and infidelity have begun to plague Annie and Henry's relationship, and they must decide if their history of failed marriage will repeat itself.

1985: The Marriage of Bette and Boo by Christopher Durang

A black comedy about, as titled, the marriage between Bette and Boo. The play begins with the couple's happy Catholic wedding, but Bette's series of miscarriages, Boo's descent into alcoholism, and the dramas of their eccentric family members threaten to pull the two apart.

Kate Jennings Grant and Christopher Evan Welch in Roundabout's 2008 production of The Marriage of Bette and Boo.

2001: The Last Five Years by Jason Robert Brown

A musical about the relationship between Jamie, a writer, and Cathy, an actress. Jamie tells the story of their relationship in chronological order, beginning with their first meeting and ending with the last time they see each other. Cathy's perspective traces the arc in reverse chronological order, beginning with their last kiss and reviewing their relationship until their first meeting. The characters only interact onstage once, in a duet in which Jamie proposes marriage.

Original Cast Recording cover art for the 2002 production of The Last Five Years, starring Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Rene Scott.

2006: God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza

Two upper-class couples get together to discuss an altercation between their school-aged children. Their evening progresses from civility to unsheathed hostility, and alliances between the four unexpectedly shift as the night wears on.

2010: Detroit by Lisa D'Amour

Two neighboring couples from differing socio-economic strata get together for a friendly barbecue. Though they seem to be from different worlds, they soon recognize that the trials of economic recession have brought their outwardly opposite lives to an uncomfortably similar point.

Dinner with Friends plays at the Laura Pels Theatre through April 13. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.

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