By Eric Marchese | Special to the NB Indy
Donald Margulies has said that most of his plays revolve around two basic themes: loss and identity.
From those universal concepts, the award-winning playwright has crafted plays as widely varied as “Sight Unseen,” “Collected Stories,” “Brooklyn Boy” and “Time Stands Still.”
South Coast Repertory has showcased much of Margulies’s work, but Newport Theatre Arts Center, working with few resources, has produced “Sight Unseen” and now “Dinner With Friends.”
The play premiered in 1998 at Actors Theater of Louisville, was revised and produced later that year at SCR and opened Off-Broadway in November of 1999. Further attesting to its excellence: It received the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
The superbly written play has proven its popularity with smaller Orange County theater companies like Stages Theatre and Costa Mesa Playhouse, both of which produced it within the last few years. NTAC’s current staging is as compelling and affecting as previous productions you might have seen.
The story “Dinner With Friends” tells is basically that of two couples: one happily married, the other seeing their marriage come to an end. It’s clear, though, that Margulies is more interested in exploring the effects these events have upon each of his four characters. So “Dinner” is really more of a character study, and a compelling one at that.
Gabe (Mark Coyan) and Karen (Holland Renton) have always been content in their marriage. They trot the globe in search of memorable food, then return home to write about the marvelous victuals they have experienced in their travels.
In the opening scene, they’ve just come back from Italy and are regaling friend Beth (Jami Bartlett) with colorful stories of their adventures, a scene defined by sparkling dialogue that reflects Gabe and Karen’s sophistication.
Then Beth drops a bomb on her old friends, tearfully revealing that her marriage to Tom is on the rocks.
At first, Gabe and Karen side with her, seeing Tom’s extramarital affair as unforgivable. But things aren’t as cut-and-dried as they seem, and as “Dinner” progresses, we find ourselves struggling to determine who is at fault – or even whether any one person is to blame.
In the first act’s final scene, Gabe and Karen dissect the demise of the other couples’ marriage – that is, between their compulsive, serial analysis of the dinner they just enjoyed. Talking shop puts them in their comfort zone and provides them with a coping mechanism – a shock absorber to dampen the blows of their best friends’ separation.
The fulcrum of “Dinner With Friends” is the scene that opens Act Two. A flashback from 12 years earlier, it takes us to Gabe and Karen’s Labor Day weekend barbecue on Martha’s Vineyard. They’ve invited Beth and Tom and are hoping the two will meet, hit it off and become a couple.
Our knowing how their marriage will eventually implode means every seemingly innocent comment by either (or by Karen or Gabe) is fraught with meaning, and seeing both couples in both past and present yields audiences tremendous insights.
In the play’s penultimate scene, Karen and Beth meet for drinks. Beth has subsumed her own personality quirks for the purpose of self-scrutiny. Perhaps sadder yet also wiser, she’s still, at heart, a creative soul seeking her place in the world. Like Tom, she seems to have matured since the divorce, and both appear more fulfilled and more at peace with themselves than before.
Yet as satisfying as events have made life for these two, for Karen and Gabe, the rapid, drastic changes Beth and Tom undergo only induce one most unwelcome emotion: anxiety. When Beth and Tom’s marriage was on the rocks, Gabe and Karen were happy. Now that their friends have found newer, better lives for themselves, Gabe and Karen have become unmoored.
The closing scene’s focus on Gabe and Karen mirrors the play’s opening scene – only this time, instead of being in their natural habitat, the kitchen, they’re in bed at the end of the day, talking about Beth and Tom. Gabe questions his friendship with Beth, and with Beth and Tom as a couple. Change, he realizes, is a given in life, and is natural, yet while it yields much happiness, some of it is also painful.
Kathy Paladino’s cast is sensitive to the script’s emotional modulations. Margulies’ script, Paladino’s solid direction and staging, and all four actors are simply excellent, bolstered by Jim Huffman’s multipurpose set design.
The camaraderie, rapport and connections between Coyan, Renton, Bartlett and Correa are wholly natural. Beth is a sensual free spirit clearly unaware of the often-harsh realities of marriage. Beth’s spiky sarcasm and her vitriolic anger toward Tom are just one side of Bartlett’s multi-sided portrayal.
Correa’s Tom is soft-spoken, calm, low key and even tempered. His embattled Tom has become embittered, dismayed that no one seems capable of understanding what his marriage to Beth has been like from his perspective.
Karen and Gabe are more intellectual, analytical and dispassionate than Beth and Tom, a canny strategy by Margulies that has us viewing the play’s events through their eyes – yet Renton and Coyan deftly communicate the confusion their characters feel in trying to sort things out.
The playwright’s unerring ear for true colloquial speech yields realism. His script is mature, nuanced and touching, and its adult language makes “Dinner” all the more realistic.
Margulies takes no sides in the fights, arguments and debates that encircle all four characters, which forces us to form our own opinions of each character and on the merits of their comments. He’s an expert craftsman whose lines flow naturally out of his characters, giving his every scene the spontaneity of real life.
Nothing in “Dinner” seems forced, and that makes everything about it a pleasure. NTAC’s production is a great one of a great play by the perceptive, insightful Margulies. You won’t know you missed a good bet until you hear that the show ended its run and now realize you passed up a chance to see some truly extraordinary theater.
Newport Theatre Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach. Through April 23. Running time (including intermission): Two hours, 20 minutes. 8 p.m. Thu.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Tickets: $20-$25. Ticket purchase/information: (949) 631-0288, www.ntaconline.com.