For a play that won the Pulitzer, Dinner with Friends doesn't have much of a plot. Two couples are best friends; one divorces. The scoundrel who walked out trades insults with his wife, then pleads his case before his best friend. There's a flashback to how it all began. The friendship of the two women has irrevocably changed; so has the men's. The still-married couple peer into an unsettling future. Uncertainties abound.
But oh, how Donald Margulies fleshes out his skeletal story. As he supplies insights about love and friendship, audiences can delight in numerous moments of self-recognition. Beth, the injured party, resents how her friend Karen appears actually to enjoy watching Beth's marital car wreck. Gabe, the best friend, feels himself rejected in the process of Tom's divorcing Beth. All four characters, seeking fulfilled lives, must navigate between the rock of multiple responsibilities and the hard place of just wanting to chuck it all.
Director Robin Stanton has remarked that the couple who remain married, Karen and Gabe, "always knew who they were. They are able to be themselves, [function as] independent individuals." Stanton regards the divorcing pair, Beth and Tom, as representing "that part of ourselves that cannot maintain that balance. They've given up part of themselves to a partnership, and, in the process, lost themselves even more. So the play is about maintaining a healthy self in the context of a healthy relationship. And that's where the food metaphor comes in, and why it's so significant... Perfect recipes are composed of complex ingredients, ideally put together in [satisfying] combinations."
At this Dinner, then, food is taken quite seriously -- which is also why it's so funny. Gabe and Karen write and edit for a magazine much like Gourmet, and they talk shop constantly. They associate memories with meals consumed; food fires their passions; they yammer on about recipes. Then they discuss that divine polenta some more.
It's so easy to make fun of their obsession, a line-cook could do it. Even Tom and Beth, the non-gourmet pair, get caught up in culinary mania. In the midst of a fiery argument about their separation, Tom pauses to ask about how the pumpkin risotto was tonight, and did Beth happen to bring any of it home?
Both the food motif and the humor are brought out more in Interplayers' version than in last August's HBO production. Some of that derives from the differences between theater and TV: the playhouse supplies its own real live laugh track. Sitting alone in my family room, I didn't, so HBO's Dinner came off as a more somber affair. Karen, for instance, while trying to console a disconsolate Beth, thinks Gabe has been awfully quiet. Her line, "Feel free; jump in any time," which felt serious when Andie MacDowell delivered it on television to Dennis Quaid, seemed like amusing irritation as conveyed by this production's Karen, Maria Glanz. But then audiences love to laugh at bickering spouses. It's the nervous laughter of self-recognition, I guess.
Stanton directs so that we'll feel amused even as she's holding up a mirror to our risible, miserable married selves. She isolates Gabe (Tim Kniffin) on one side of the stage as the women commiserate, creating a visual equivalent for his taciturn moodiness. In the flashback scene, she puts Tom and Beth in a corner, emphasizing their comparative loneliness. She establishes an everyday object, a rattan chair, as the judgment seat which Gabe and Karen successively occupy as they evaluate Tom's behavior.
The quality of Stanton's direction is complemented by an excellent quartet of actors. As the food critic, Gabe, Kniffin inhabits yet another character completely. In the opening scene, all flowing sleeves and wine glass held langorously over crossed legs, he's the self-conscious gastronome. In the flashback scene (12 years before, at the beach), he projects the goofiness of the frat boy who's never grown up, his knees bouncing up and down in anticipation of his buddy Tom's imminent sexual conquest of Beth (Holli Hornlien). And in his reticent character's finest speech, Kniffin condemns his best friend for selfishly giving into "abandon." Faced with a midlife crisis, he says, "Some of us blow up our homes... And others of us... take up piano; I'm taking piano." Kniffin strikes a convincing, righteous blow in favor of marriage, stability, commitment.
As Karen, Glanz is convincing when she's angry at Tom for his treachery, persuasive about being taken aback by sudden criticisms from Beth, disarming as she endures a little ritual with Gabe, balancing apprehension and delight. Glanz is making her Interplayers debut in this production; like everyone in this ensemble, she's an actor we'd like to see here again and again.
Hornlien pulls off the sudden and difficult transition Beth makes in the opening scene from laughter to tears. She interprets rather too enthusiastically the script's clue about Beth having danced "weird Kabuki" style in the past; her "Look at me, I'm an artiste" approach to Beth's flamboyance seems overdone in the Martha's Vineyard scene, though she recovers impressive self-assertiveness in her final confrontation with Karen.
As the straying husband who has the gall to return to his estranged wife's bedroom in the middle of the night, unannounced, and then put her on trial for having deceived him, Tim Eastman prowls about, hunched with anger. He's angry, he's horny, he's remorseful -- all with arresting intensity. He makes Tom's inarticulate inability to acknowledge one leave-taking quite touching and sad.
By the end of the play, Tom and Beth are still hungry -- for love, for fulfillment, for a sense of self. It's an old literary chestnut: characters who say they are hungry are really crying out for love. Metaphorically if not literally, all of us are famished.
We all just want a decent meal. We all just want to be fulfilled. The Interplayers production of Margulies' play reminds us all just how desperate we are to be loved.