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Dinner with Friends

Donald Margulies’ Pulitzer-winning comedy-drama picks at the bones of two marriages and four friendships

“Dinner with Friends” is all about nourishment. Five of its seven scenes revolve around eating and drinking. Food -- its preparation and enjoyment, its role as mediator of social interactions, its biological function of keeping body and soul together -- is the leitmotif of this play and a not-so-subtle metaphor for just about everything that happens in it.

Gabe and Karen are successful world-traveling food writers and, not incidentally, gourmet cooks in their own right. Their best friends, Beth and Tom, are klutzes in the kitchen but devoted admirers and partakers of Gabe and Karen’s hospitality. The two couples are prosperous, sophisticated Connecticut suburbanites, with two kids each and a tight friendship going back 12 years. They’re a compatible fortyish foursome who, as Gabe says, expect “to grow old and fat together.”

Then, in the middle of dessert -- a scrumptious lemon-almond-polenta cake recipe Karen and Gabe have just brought back from a trip to Italy -- Beth breaks down sobbing. She’s come to dinner alone, but it’s not because her husband is away on business, as she had previously indicated. He’s leaving her for another woman.

This setup has all the ingredients of either a TV weepy or a knowing send-up of Gold Coast yuppies. But it’s neither of those. “Dinner with Friends” isn’t really about the breakup of a marriage. It’s about the shockwaves that radiate from that rupture, fracturing the friendships in unexpected ways and shaking the foundations of Gabe and Karen’s own married life.

Donald Margulies calls his play, which won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize, “a rueful comedy.” It is a rather uneasy meditation on what happens when someone tosses a grenade onto the comfortable path into middle age. And it’s well stocked with laughs, which come even in the midst of anguish. Most of the gags arise from the food motif, as when Tom, desperately pleading his own side of the story with Gabe and Karen, pauses to inquire about the menu of the dinner they were enjoying when Beth spilled the beans. In fact, the play has a distinctly satirical edge, tweaking Gabe and Karen’s culinary obsessions, Beth’s pretensions as an artist (Gabe calls her style “neo-psychotic”), and Tom’s self-satisfied feeling of rejuvenation as a self-described “43-year-old boy-toy.”

Before he took up playwriting, Margulies was an artist, specializing in collage. His plays, too, are built on accretions of small details that come together to make a multifaceted picture. In “Dinner with Friends” he essentially lays out four points of view, without taking sides. His characters are smart and articulate, and his dialogue is convincingly realistic. Lines overlap, conversations ebb and flow, constantly circling back to food. But there’s something not quite, well, organic about it. The picture that emerges from the collage of unremarkable details is engaging, but a bit contrived -- and the fact that it’s a complex, four-sided portrait that answers far fewer questions than it poses makes it no less schematic.

This is revealed most clearly in the weakest performance in Rob Ruggiero’s smoothly assured production for TheaterWorks. Tom is the play’s thinnest character -- a Peter Pan who dines out on charm and youthful good looks -- and Jeff Weatherford’s stiff rendition makes Tom’s complaints about his wife’s coldness sound more like whining than genuine pain. Beth is a pretty cool cucumber, and Barbara Gulan struggles to show us glimpses of the woman’s core of passion, a motive that’s key to the play’s final surprise twist on the theme of intimacy and deception.

But this production belongs to Eliza Foss and Richard Topol. They work together beautifully, just as Karen and Greg do, feeding off each other’s energy, indicating the couple’s baseline devotion even when they’re bickering. Topol in particular is outstanding, with a goofy playfulness, ever ready with a wry wisecrack, then crumpling into hurt bewilderment as his cherished assumptions collapse around him.

This is the first time TheaterWorks has tried to get get seven different settings -- two of which are bedrooms -- onto its compact subterranean stage. Set designer Luke Hegel-Cantarella suggests each scene with a minimum of furniture -- a table and chairs fronting a serving island, a queen-size bed and matching nightstands -- and then furnishes them with top-of-the-line accoutrements. Composer J. Hagenbuckle provides yuppie-appropriate jazz-lite incidental music during the scene changes.

“Dinner with Friends” is classic TheaterWorks fare -- contemporary scripts that give you something to think about after you leave the theater, smartly directed, with strong casts. Though neither play nor players are perfect in this instance, it still makes for a tasty and nutritious repast.

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