BWW Review: Four Great Performances in Tampa Rep's Production of Donald Margulies' Pulitzer Prize-Winning DINNER WITH FRIENDS
"It's like a death, isn't it?" --a line from DINNER WITH FRIENDS about a couple's break-up
"I'm not going crazy; I'm going sane." --Tom in DINNER WITH FRIENDS
"I can definitely relate to this." --Overheard during Intermission
One of my mother's friends, happily married, was once awakened in the middle of the night by her husband. "I have to tell you something," he said, most likely in a whisper. "I no longer love you and am moving out in the morning." When my mother's friend awoke the next morning, she was relieved that it was all a dream. As she cooked the family's breakfast, her husband sat at the kitchen table. "I had the worst nightmare last night," she told him. "I dreamt you woke me up to tell me that you no longer love me and are moving out this morning." I assume there was a pause before he spoke: "It wasn't a dream. It really happened. I no longer love you and am leaving this morning."
I thought of my mother's friend and her husband's midnight bombshell as I was watching Tampa Rep's compelling production of Donald Margulies Pulitzer Prize-winning DINNER WITH FRIENDS. This is a play most married couples can relate to, even if very different from their own lives. Two couples--Gabe and Karen, Beth and Tom--have been best friends for well over a decade. When Beth announces to Gabe and Karen that her husband, Tom, has left her for another woman, everything changes. Gabe and Karen, shocked by the news, start to reexamine their own relationship and feel somewhat responsible (they were the reason Beth and Tom got together in the first place). What does this say about their own marriage?
Tampa Rep's production boasts four of the top actors in our area: Ned Averill-Snell and Ami Sallee as Gabe and Karen, and Emilia Sargent and Alan Mahoney, Jr. as Beth and Tom. Each of these performances is nothing short of superb. We understand their characters' motivations, reactions, reasons. We may not always like what they are doing or saying, but we understand why. What I like about the script, and about these performances, is that it keep switching our sympathies and allegiances. Sometimes we don't know quite where to stand with some of the characters.
The brilliant Emilia Sargent, as Beth, breaks your heart at first, as she breaks the news of her husband's shocking departure from their marriage. And then we see her in other scenes, in other surroundings, and suddenly we have to alter our perceptions of her. We loathe Alan Mahoney's Tom at first, and then we start liking him; maybe, we wonder, he does have a point in why he left. I like how much of the play is understated until those big moments, those bursts of emotions, people trying to be understood.
Ned Averill-Snell is excellent as Gabe, sort of questioning his own marriage, his own wife and life, when he hears the news of his friends' break-up. He tries to understand both sides, but Karen--the equally strong Sallee--won't have it. All four actors don't just enter at "11" on the Spinal Tap meter. They are natural, and then hit the "11" when necessary, but never too much.
With these four, you'll be hard-pressed to find better performances anywhere.
The script is whip-smart with so many food references. Gabe and Karen are food writers who love to try different international dishes, like a lemon polenta cake that is obviously sooo good. Listen to the ways the couples describe their food throughout the show: "So sexy, so primal"; "succulent"; "buttery." Unfortunately, I ate at MacDonald's before seeing DINNER WITH FRIENDS, so I felt mighty unqualified for Margulies' food porn script. I'm sorry, but a Big Mac cannot hold a candle to a lemon polenta cake that causes orgasmic yummy sounds from its devourers.
Robin Gordon directs with a sure hand; the blocking is well-done and doesn't feel forced or like we're watching actors "Act" (always a show killer). We are seeing their reactions, not forced actions. And they hit each note, each moment, perfectly.
Lea Umberger's set is sparse, more suitable for an acting class than a full professional production. I wonder if the set could tell us more about these couples, rather than the generic bed and table with plates of food. Perhaps we could learn about their social statuses, that one couple may be more adventurous, while the other is more staid (which is part of the problem in their marriages). We get that idea of the difference in the two--food writers versus a lawyer and a would-be artist--but the set could tell us so much more about that. It just seems generic when it doesn't have to be. Still, the acting slays, so who's worrying about the set?
DINNER WITH FRIENDS is a rather exciting show, even if it's quiet at times and its subject matter doesn't make it seem that way. There's an unpredictability, when we think we're heading to Point B and suddenly we pivot and are at Point X. We often find ourselves on the edge of our seats, listening, waiting for the next revelation. It's a fast show, entertaining as hell, and it never feels forced.
The only thing is, after leaving the HCC Studio Theatre in Ybor City on Saturday night, I didn't take the show with me, if that makes sense. Great theatre usually makes me obsessed over a work I've just experienced, replaying the performances and the lines in my head afterwards. But with DINNER WITH FRIENDS, it was like a good meal but not one that I cherished or held close to my heart. After those four great performances and the clever Pulitzer Prized script, all I wished to take with me afterwards was a piece of that lemon polenta cake. Does anybody know where I can get some?
Tampa Rep's DINNER WITH FRIENDS plays at the HCC Studio Theatre in Ybor until September 29th. Don't go if you're hungry.