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Theater Review

A Delicious 'Dinner With Friends'

Donald Margulies' bittersweet play about relationships--and how to survive them--displays a lively wit.


Two couples in their 40s, prosperous, two kids apiece, many, many shared vacations, friends from way back.

One couple splits. The other doesn't.

This is not particularly exotic narrative territory. But among America's commercially successful playwrights who also happen to be good, Donald Margulies has proven one of the finest.

"Dinner With Friends" won the Pulitzer Prize earlier this year and now makes its Los Angeles debut at the Geffen Playhouse. It has nothing more or less on its mind than what it takes to sustain a marriage when, as one character says, the years add up and "practical matters begin to outweigh abandon."

The play is like the Roman pomodoro two of its characters--food writers--describe in overlapping dialogue early on as "amazing."

"And simple."

"Amazingly simple."

It's also very easy to revisit. For the Geffen, director Daniel Sullivan has restaged "Dinner With Friends" with a cast consisting of Kevin Kilner (a veteran of Sullivan's superb off-Broadway production), Dana Delany (a three-month alum of the same production) and--new to the piece--Rita Wilson and Daniel Stern.

Stern and Wilson portray the food writers, Gabe and Karen, whose sunflower-gold suburban Connecticut kitchen (wittily detailed by scenic designer Neil Patel) reflects a life ruled by cuisine and color-coded domesticity. Their marriage has settled into a comfortable routine, if a romantically recessive one.

Beth (Delany, who played the other female role in New York) is over for dinner, while her husband Tom (Kilner) is away on business. That's the story, anyway. Soon, between the lamb and the dessert, comes the truth: Tom has left her for another woman. Their marriage has been rocky for years, a matter of enervation over inspiration--strictly for the kids' sake.

Later that night, after he learns Beth has told their friends her side of the story, an angry Tom pays an unannounced visit to Gabe and Karen. Karen has no interest in his version. Gabe is conflicted.

Months later, Tom regales Gabe with tales of how his new relationship has rejuvenated him. Likewise, Beth has found a new love, someone from her past. Karen is taken aback. The fractured couple appears to be more "whole," more soul-satisfied, than the intact one.

Following his four characters in various combinations, Margulies is extremely crafty about shifting our sympathies. He's interested foremost in how one couple's breakup can affect another's sense of security. He's also very astute regarding the things people tend to leave out in difficult conversations. (The playwright once described his trade as "the craft of dramatizing the unspoken.")

There's no question that "Dinner With Friends" has become as much a zeitgeist pop culture item as, say, "The Big Chill" (phony as that was). Here and there, you detect a line consciously eliciting a "That's just like us!" nod from its audience. Watching this show in performance is like attending a mass nodding seminar.

The writing sometimes settles for generalities about Life Today that, by design or not, become the equivalents of "applause" lines. "Dinner With Friends" may not be as edgy or distinctive as Margulies' "Sight Unseen" (my favorite). But it's a lively, witty and finally bittersweet question in the form of a two-act comedy-drama. The question: How do any two people keep it together?

Director Sullivan has never done truer and cleaner work with contemporary realism, and here he has been helped greatly by Patel's scenic design (whoosh go the transitions, with a turn of the revolving set). This is an excellent staging--even with some less-than-perfect casting for this L.A. edition.

Stern's Gabe is ingratiating and solid, and the "Home Alone" co-star's instinct for comedy generally works in this new, lower gear required by Margulies' text. Yet he hasn't clamped down hard enough. In the final scene particularly, he's getting laughs the material does not need. The same goes for Wilson's Karen, quite good in many respects but overemphatic in others. This is not an offhand character; she's written (too much so, I think) as a brittle control freak. But stressing these traits doesn't help.

Still, Stern and Wilson work hard and earnestly, and no one in this quartet grandstands. Kilner's Tom remains a first-rate and shrewdly ambiguous creation, a carelessly sensual jock with an insecure streak. Delany is eloquent throughout (though she has to watch her volume), making Beth a quiet, convincing casualty of a mismatched couple--and then, confusingly for Karen, a satisfied free spirit with more in her past than she's letting on.

That sort of veiled-secrecy business makes "Dinner With Friends" sound more Lifetime for Women than it is, really. The tag line for last year's film "The Story of Us"--"Can a marriage survive 15 years of marriage?"--could apply to Margulies' 1998 play. Sometimes with that rhetorical question, you get a fraud like "The Story of Us." And sometimes, if you're lucky, you get "Dinner With Friends."

* "Dinner With Friends," Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. Tuesdays-Thursdays,7:30 p.m.; Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 4 and 8:30 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Also: 2 p.m., Oct. 18. Ends Oct. 29. $20-$42. $10 student rush 15 minutes before curtain. (310) 208-5454. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

"Dinner With Friends"

Daniel Stern: Gabe

Rita Wilson: Karen

Dana Delany: Beth

Kevin Kilner: Tom

Written by Donald Margulies. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Scenic design by Neil Patel. Costumes by Jess Goldstein. Lighting by Rui Rita. Original music and sound by Michael Roth. Production stage manager Elizabeth A. Brohm.

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