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Play Is Comfort Food for Restaurant Critic

October 26, 1998|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Who among us isn't curious as to how others perceive us or our professions?

As a career food journalist, my interest was piqued when I heard about Donald Margulies' play "Dinner With Friends," an intricately woven and often touchingly funny story in which two professional food writers figure prominently.

Naturally, I rushed right over to South Coast Repertory to see how the profession is represented.

Quite well, in fact.

It turns out that the couple, Gabe and Karen, have their priorities in unambiguous order. As far as character development is concerned, those priorities seem to be: food, sex, their friends and the children. From where I sit, that is a sane approach to life.

Just kidding.

I ran into playwright Margulies at a post-performance reception in the crowded foyer of the swank Pinot Provence--the new restaurant at the Westin South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa. He made an interesting point while we nibbled hors d'oeuvres such as goat cheese and tapenade profiteroles and almond polenta cakes topped with grilled lamb loin and pumpkin cream.

"Food has become a medium of great cultural importance," he said, "and eating together has always been a metaphor for intimacy."

Perhaps that is why he chose to make Gabe and Karen, foils to their good friends Tom and Beth (the other couple in the story), food writers.

"I wanted to stay away from the foodie thing," Margulies said, "but the idea evolved naturally as I was writing the play."

"Dinner With Friends" uses food for both comic purposes and as relief of tension, as is often the case in real life. At a particularly awkward moment during the preliminary stages of an introduction, Gabe instructs Beth to "chop a shallot." When Beth undergoes an especially wrenching moment emotionally, she is soothed by a sumptuously exotic dessert.

The subtle pretensions of food writers are also sent up nicely, often at the most unexpected moments.

When Jane Kaczmarek (playing Karen) used the word "astringent" to dismiss a mediocre wine, I cringed involuntarily, thinking how silly and pretentious wine nerds can be. Actor John Carroll Lynch (Gabe) makes the audience laugh merely by pronouncing the Italian name of a dish. Good grief, do I sound that stuffy at parties?

"Dinner With Friends," in the end, isn't about food at all. The many references to food woven into the dialogue are merely a backdrop for life's larger issues. Still, the issues are made more palatable by serving them along with a slice of lemon almond polenta cake, or a piece of grilled lamb marinated in rosemary, garlic, lemon juice and olive oil.

Being a food writer is a privilege, and Margulies has portrayed his characters as lucky survivors, well equipped to sail through midlife with a glass of Chianti in one hand and the perfect canape in the other. Yet in the end, even we have to work at life, just as hard as everyone else, and that point is certainly not lost on the playwright.

Anyone who likes food and friends--and who among us doesn't?--should find something to relate to at "Dinner With Friends."

I won't say for sure that I came away from the production with a new outlook on life. I do confess to having left the theater far hungrier than I entered it.

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