Viewers of Donald Margulies‘ Pulitzer Prize–winning play Dinner With Friends may be forgiven a shudder of deja vu during its first scene. A likable couple and their moody friend, all barely into their 40s, sit around a kitchen table finishing off the red wine that has complemented an elaborate dinner, before pouring coffee and spooning away a homemade Italian dessert. When the visiting friend suddenly breaks down and tearfully admits that her adulterous husband is leaving her, we realize the small talk is over and the plot has begun ticking.
We know this because, as theatergoers, we’re conditioned to expect abrupt revelations in precisely these kinds of cozily domestic, merlot-flavored settings. Just, that is, as we expect our allegiances to the various characters to be manipulated over the next two hours, and just as we expect Dinner‘s erudite banter about risotto and polenta, along with scene locales that shift from Manhattan bars to Martha’s Vineyard cottages.
In fact, we are already so familiar with both the premise and physical layout of this play that even while the wronged wife reveals the reasons for her agony, our eyes are busy taking approving inventory of the couple‘s resplendent kitchen, with its butcher-block tables, pasta jars and German coffeemaker. This one room alone probably costs more to provision than it would the average American’s entire home. ”Who are these guys?“ Joe Sixpack might wonder. But if we are part of the Westside audience seeing this comedy-drama at the Geffen Playhouse, the answer will be a reassuring ”us.“
For the record, Gabe and Karen (Daniel Stern and Rita Wilson), the married couple hosting the titular dinner, are an obviously successful pair of food writers living in Connecticut. (Note to theater critics: We are definitely in the wrong market.) Their guest, Beth (Dana Delany), is a painter manque whom they introduced, a decade ago, to Gabe‘s old college pal Tom. After we meet Tom (Kevin Kilner), a lawyer, in the next scene, we surmise that arty little Beth is also not exactly the most honest person in the Nutmeg State. From here the play follows the widening rift between Beth and Tom, and how they seem perfectly happy to put their flawed marriage behind them, while the couple really affected is Gabe and Karen, who come to re-examine and question their own relationship.
Well, sort of, because the man writing their dialogue doesn’t seem awfully interested in testing their values or self-satisfied baby-boomer outlook. To be sure, Margulies comes close to suggesting further or future infidelities, with stretches of dialogue or uncomfortable visual tropes (i.e., Tom‘s complaints of having to masturbate his way through marriage — a remark that clearly affects Gabe — and the image of Gabe and Karen as The Couple Reading in Bed); even the play’s single time shuttle, which moves the action back a decade for one scene, seems on the verge of revealing some secret sexual shenanigans from the past.
But, as we‘ll eventually learn, this isn’t that kind of play. Every time a promising moment comes along and we think Margulies is moving the story into a deeper, if not darker reach, as though we may be watching an American version of Harold Pinter‘s Betrayal — nothing happens. Instead, his characters act as if they are the center of the a universe (or, at least, Connecticut); at one point Gabe actually rebukes Tom’s philandering because it has terribly upset one of Gabe‘s kids. (Gabe’s and Tom‘s clans presumably represent the kind of entitled middle-class families over which this year’s politicians are fussing so much.) Similarly there are plenty of times when you think Margulies is satirizing his characters‘ well-fed, protected generation, only to realize his play is in deadening earnest.
In other words, Margulies has written a play that at every turn reveals his failure to take a risk, to do something new, something daring that would wrench at least one of these characters out of his or her bourgeois domesticity and its butcher-block tables, German coffeemakers and jokey repartee. Whenever a character from one of the last half-century’s great plays about matrimonial warfare (Look Back in Anger, Who‘s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Slave) expressed a realization about marriage, one felt he or she was experiencing that epiphany for a whole generation. Here, though, when Gabe pouts that he feels betrayed by Tom’s cavalier attitude toward marriage, we only sense the selfish anger of a man whose entire life revolves around consuming food and describing it to others.
Dinner With Friends is about relationships, but lacks the nuanced portrait of need and betrayal that Margulies sketched so brilliantly in Collected Stories, also seen at the Geffen Playhouse, and is sitcomy without emanating the intellectual warmth of another Geffen production, Lee Kalcheim‘s Defiled. (You know the play is in trouble when confrontational pillow talk between Gabe and Karen only leads to the wife admitting to having had a dream about a four-way in which the other couple was a ghost version of her and Gabe.) Margulies looks into the troubled soul of the American marriage and finds only punch lines, announcing that he has entered that phase of playwriting development when an author admits his membership in the middle class and that his job is to flatter complacent audiences.
This is all really a shame, because the Geffen show is a fine assemblage of talent. Daniel Sullivan directs his actors with obvious empathy, arming them with subtle gestures and tics that give the cast more depth than does the material (although Stern and Wilson make a suspiciously slender pair of middle-aged foodies). Kilner in particular navigates his Tom through some choppy waters. He is the last to appear onstage, after we have heard his character impugned, and he says the most straightforwardly narcissistic and selfish things — yet he remains charming throughout it all. The production’s technical standards are similarly outstanding, while never becoming overbearing. Neil Patel‘s sumptuous sets, whether it be that gleaming kitchen or a wood-paneled Manhattan bar, lovingly capture both the look and feel of the characters’ worlds without overshadowing them. Perhaps Patel serves Margulies too well, confirming a celebration of affluence and comfort that tells us what we‘ve suspected all along — that ”the Vineyard“ his characters so cherish is not a place where any grapes of wrath are stored, but which may as well have been named for Martha Stewart.
For a different view, see New Reviews in CalendarTheater.