BWW Review: DINNER WITH FRIENDS at CVRep Playhouse
Many years ago, I was having drinks with a married couple who were my two best friends. They both greeted me with warm hugs, and then he ran out to the store for cigarettes. She had a pitcher of homemade margaritas, and suggested we enjoy them on the back patio. We'd just settled in, and were looking out on her beautiful garden when she quietly said, "He wants a divorce." I was shocked and confused, and my reaction surprised even me. I threw up. My mind was trying to figure out how this had happened - they'd worked so hard to be together, he'd talked her into marriage just a few years prior after being together for over ten years; I just didn't see this coming, and neither did she. In the end, she fared much better than I did; she went on a couple of dating sites, met a new guy and they're crazy in love. I don't think I ever got over it. And that's pretty much what Donald Margulies Pulitzer Prize-winning Dinner With Friends explores.
The play's Karen (Jennifer Sorenson) and Gabe (Scott Golden) are a happily married couple who are co-writers on a food blog. They travel together, write together, had two children together, and finish each other's sentences. They've cooked a spectacular meal for Beth (Corryn Cummins), one-half of their best friends, and her kids who are upstairs watching TV with Karen and Gabe's kids.
Beth's husband, Tom (Christopher Wallinger), is not in attendance because, she explains, he'd been called away on an unexpected business trip. It's clearly a lie to everyone except Karen and Gabe. Karen and Gabe are so self-absorbed telling their story about their latest travel adventure they stop only once to see if they're boring Beth. She insists they're not and they continue their story.
A few minutes later, Beth breaks into tears, and tells them that Tom is divorcing her. He's met a 'stewardess' (who's actually a travel agent) and he's fallen in love with her. She confesses Tom told her he doesn't love her and that he's been feeling this way for awhile. He'd actually ditched the dinner to be with his new girlfriend.
A snowstorm has grounded Tom's plane. He is still living in their family home but sleeping in the den. When he unexpectedly shows up in their bedroom, waking Beth, she tells him to get out. But Tom doesn't want to get out. Weirdly, he really wants to know what went on at dinner: what food was served, what they talked about, and what Beth might have told Gabe and Karen about their split. He's angry because they'd agreed to tell them together. The fight turns physical and during the altercation Tom pins Beth down on the bed and violently kisses her. They have sex.
Tom keeps showing up unexpectedly, his next stop is Karen and Gabe's and it's right after he and Beth have sex. Karen wants nothing to do with him, and leaves him and Gabe alone. Gabe offers Tom something to eat, and Tom asks for the dessert that Beth described to him. While eating his cake, he explains his side of the story. And surprise! He's the one that's been wronged. His wife changed.
Act Two begins with a flashback. Karen and Gabe are newlyweds, and have each have invited their best friends over to their beach house. Their best friends are, of course, Beth and Tom. And Tom is correct, Beth has changed. She was carefree, whimsical, alive and in the moment. Tom falls for her.
We then flash forward a few months and we check in with each of their friendships. They're not what they were. Karen and Gabe reflect on losing their friends, and wonder what it means for their relationship.
The play has no "aha" moments. Beth and Tom move on, find their way apart, while Karen and Gabe's relationship cracks a little. It's the cracks that the play ultimately explores. It is a slice of life play, and a slice of life needs something to keep the audience's attention. And while the play isn't a comedy, there are comedic moments that could have been mined to keep the audience engaged. They didn't play out that way.
I had no issues with any of the actors. They're all top tier.
Sorenson's Karen is kind, demonstrative and strong. She is a steadfast friend to Beth, and a great partner to Gabe. She knows who she is until her friendship with Beth makes her question everything. She is the most likeable character in the play, and the most rounded. It's a very good performance by Sorenson.
As Gabe, Scott Golden is a loving and attentive husband and father. He's clearly in love with Karen, but his friendship with Tom goes way back to school, and he's confused by Tom's decision. We can actually see him thinking about what is happening. It's a fine performance.
Corryn Cummings' Beth is not exactly likeable. Yes, her husband is leaving her, but again - we know something is going on from the moment the lights come up on Act One. She's slouched, sullen, and clearly in a different head space. So, when she finally breaks and spills the beans, the only people who are surprised are Gabe and Karen, which makes Gabe and Karen seem completely oblivious to their friend's obvious pain. It's not a good look for them. Cummings does a great job in Act Two when she's introduced as Karen's free-spirited artist friend, as well as when she and Karen have their last lunch together.
The character of Tom is as unlikeable as they come, a man-child who decided after marrying and having children that he doesn't want to be married with children. Christopher Wallinger, as the villain, finds no redeeming qualities in Tom, but how could he? Tom is self-absorbed, and at one point he's clearly trying to hit on Karen, he's not a nice guy.
Jimmy Cuomo's set has two kitchen sets, which look great. However there were two painted backdrops used that had me trying to figure out why they used them, and it actually took me right out of the play while I pondered them. One was a bistro where Karen and Beth have lunch, and the other a New York rooftop bar where Tom and Gabe have their final chat. Rather than painted backdrops, why not intimate lighting and sound cues with a table and chairs, and a plant or two?
In other technicals, Moira Wilkie Whitaker's lighting, as always, was well-done as were Frank Cazares' costume designs.
For me, the problem is Director Darin Anthony's staging and for not mining the comedy written into the play to keep us engaged. For instance, if Beth had been seated between Karen and Gabe in the first act, it would have amped up the humor as Beth tries to keep up with their story, one on each side. Also, if Beth had not been so morose in the beginning, it would have made her announcement shocking. The bedroom scene between Beth and Tom felt kind of rape-y, instead of consentual hate sex. The second act gets better, but by then we've lost interest.
Overall, this production fell far short of my expectations of the usually stellar work by CVRep.
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