Donald Margulies’ play, Dinner with Friends, won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in the year 2000. The intimate drama reveals the marital states of two couples that are long time friends. On a snowy evening in the Connecticut home of Gabe (Patrick Vest) and Karen (Christina Morrell), the cheerful couple cook and chatter about their recent trip to Italy with their long time friend, Beth (Renée O’Connor). Before long, Beth breaks down and confesses that, after twelve years of marriage and two kids, her husband, Tom (Doug Mattingly), has left her for another woman. The revelation shakes Gabe and Karen and immediately Karen is judgmental, while Gabe wants more information.
In a subsequent scene, Tom, a New York lawyer who was to have taken a plane to Washington, shows up back at home, his flight having been cancel because of the weather. When Tom learns that Beth has told their friends of the breakup, he becomes enraged and accuses Beth of breaking their agreement of telling their friends of the situation together in order to tilt the loyalties her way. The scene grows unsettling as Tom becomes aggressive and threatening. Mr. Mattingly, with shaved head and a tall, muscular build, towers over the diminutive Ms. O’Connor, who gives back as good as she gets. The scene is intense and quite frankly, scary. Subsequently, the play flashes back to the beginning of Tom and Beth’s relationship, then jumps ahead to the present, some months after the breakup.
As directed by Mark Piatelli, the action is fast paced with the dialogue often tumbling and overlapping depending on the emotional state of the characters. As Gabe, Mr. Vest anchors the production as the voice of kindness and reason, while Ms. Morrell, as Karen, is bolder in her analysis of, not only Beth and Tom’s relationship, but her own as well. Together they reveal the several stages of an evolving marriage from passion to comfort to the acceptance of the inevitable change wrought by time.
The flashback scene reveals the shaky foundation of Tom and Beth’s relationship. Brought together by Gabe and Karen with the idea of sparking a mutual interest, Ms. O’Connor as Beth is a dreamy, artistic individualist, a woman who rhapsodizes over nature swathed in colorful garments. She is coy and a bit defensive upon meeting Tom, who reveals to his friend Gabe that he envies his stable, growing relationship with Karen. Long a bachelor, and envious of his friend’ s happiness, he figures that marriage is the next evolutionary step, a rational notion and not necessarily one of solid romance. And so the seeds of conflict are sown.
The show, fraught with angst and conflict, also displays some very affecting, loving emotion. Some of the action creates tension in the audience with fear of actual violence and pity for the characters. There are raised voices, moments of gentle communication, and, it must be said, loads of love and affection, sometimes expressed in unusual ways. And, importantly, there is plenty of comic relief.
Dinner with Friends runs through May 28 at Little Fish Theatre in San Pedro. See it while you can.