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An Intimate, Satisfying 'Dinner'

Theater review: Donald Margulies' smooth comedy focuses on a married couple and how their ties to their divorcing friends--and to each other--are challenged.

October 26, 1998|DON SHIRLEY TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gabe and Karen are working overtime at their dinner party: cooking, serving, chattering about their trip to Italy, keeping the kids entertained in the other room. Their one adult guest, their good friend Beth, hardly says a word.

Then Beth drops a bomb, just in time for dessert. Her husband, their equally good friend Tom, is leaving her.

So begins Donald Margulies' "Dinner With Friends," a seamless comedy about the fraying seams in marriage and friendship, an intimate work about the illusion of intimacy.

Margulies' third production at South Coast Repertory (a West Coast premiere) demonstrates again that he's one of America's best writers of small-scale, realistic, conversational comedies that probe the dynamics of long-term relationships, and that Daniel Sullivan is one of America's most masterful directors of this kind of fare.

This isn't a fashionable genre--"Dinner With Friends" and Margulies' 1996 work, "Collected Stories," aren't theatrically flashy. (His 1991 play "Sight Unseen" is a tad more so.) Margulies' recent plays are so accessible that they run the risk of being viewed as lacking mystery, subtext and lyricism.

But "Dinner With Friends" doesn't, in fact, explain it all for us. We leave the play pondering why some people are better at marriage--and friendship--than others. And how can anyone know whether the sacrifices that are necessary to sustain those relationships will be worthwhile in the long run?

The primary focus of "Dinner" is on Gabe and Karen, the happily married couple. During the course of the play, their ties to both of their divorcing friends, as well as to each other, are challenged.

*

Gabe and Karen run a mom-and-pop food writing business--he's the writer and photographer, she's the editor. Their opening dialogue in front of Beth is about the joys of meeting and dining with a famous octogenarian cook in Milan. The comfort food they savor is matched by the comfort they derive from each other. They complete some of each other's thoughts, but occasionally they contradict each other, too--they appear to have achieved a balance between being a unit and being individuals, which is especially important considering how much time they spend together.

John Carroll Lynch's Gabe is a performance that's remarkable for appearing so unremarkable, so unperformed. Chunky and balding and bespectacled, Lynch is the sort of actor who's usually cast as a gourmand instead of a gourmet. But here he's at home with the pomodoro sauce in the kitchen, and he appears to be equally at ease in every other room of the house. He's such a nice guy, and he so gracefully sidesteps smugness about his happy lot, that it's easier to care about his anxieties when they eventually arise.

Jane Kaczmarek's Karen is more angular, more aggressive, more questioning, but not so much so that she doesn't appear to be a perfect complement, an ideal mate for Gabe. These two have fun together in a way that is seldom seen in staged marriages.

*

Director Sullivan sees the humor in the scene in which Beth breaks down and supposedly tells all about her marital crack-up. Julie White's sobbing Beth picks up the Italian place mats just given to her by Karen and uses them to wipe her eyes and nose. White has an interesting task here--she moves from being oh-so-open and candid in her opening scene to being someone we don't know as well as we thought. White handles this arc with absolute precision.

T. Scott Cunningham's Tom, handsome and glib, initially appears to be the villain. He remains the least sympathetic character, but his arguments acquire a shred of sympathy as we learn more about Beth. His true-believer talk about his new romance is almost touching in its naive fervor.

The chronological progress of the story is interrupted for one long flashback to the scene when the newly married Gabe and Karen introduced Beth and Tom to each other during a summer idyll on Martha's Vineyard. It's an engrossing exercise to pore over this encounter in retrospect, looking for clues to the eventual dissolution of Beth's and Tom's marriage. Margulies provided a couple of such hints, but he's not heavy-handed about it. Candice Cain's costumes and Carol F. Doran's wigs also approach this scene's time travel with subtlety and care.

Likewise, Thomas Lynch's sets illustrate suburban affluence without overdoing it. Like a number of the contemporary plays at South Coast, "Dining With Friends" doesn't take the predominantly suburban audience here far outside its own milieu, but it does take them on an inward journey that's funny and illuminating.

* "Dinner With Friends, South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Ends Nov. 22. $28-$45. (714) 708-5555. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

"Dinner With Friends,

John Carroll Lynch: Gabe

Jane Kaczmarek: Karen

Julie White: Beth

T. Scott Cunningham: Tom

By Donald Margulies. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Sets by Thomas Lynch. Costumes by Candice Cain. Lights by Pat Collins. Music and sound by Michael Roth. Wigs by Carol F. Doran. Stage manager Scott Harrison.

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