It might have been called “A Tale of Two Marriages.” Whatever the title, Donald Margulies’ Dinner With Friends merits its Pulitzer Prize. An apparently simple story of one couple’s breakup and its effect on their closest friends, it evolves into an examination of the nature of friendship itself. How much should a friend confide? What are the consequences of withholding some of the truth? Can we ever really trust another person? Are our friends seen clearly as the people they are or through the prism of our own expectations?
Anyone who has ever loved and/or been disappointed in a friend will be at home at Berkeley Rep where the drama currently is playing. For those who have been married for some time, or divorced, Dinner With Friends will resonate even more deeply. The play’s serious themes, though, do not stop it from being funny.
True to its title, most of the action centers on food – at a dinner table, in a kitchen, preparing a meal, or gobbling up the leftovers. Gabe (Dan Hiatt) is a food writer and he and his wife Karen (Lauren Lane) are the kind of pretentious gourmets endemic to the Bay Area, although here they are living on the East Coast. If you could bottle this pair you could name the scent “Eau de Boomer.” Margulies has deftly captured his generation with a word, a gesture, a preoccupation. As his marriage is collapsing, the angry, exhausted Tom (Bill Geisslinger) interrupts his own tirade to ask what Gabe and Karen served for dessert. Then he goes over to their house to taste for himself.
It is all very clever but this play is far from glib. The first act is the funniest; taking place in one night as Beth (Lorri Holt) tells her best friend that Tom is leaving her for another woman. Gabe and Karen immediately line up along gender lines but, when Tom comes over to tell his side, Gabe, forced to examine his own marriage, is no longer so sure.
In Act 2, Margulies begins to play with time. It is 12 years earlier at Gabe and Karen’s vacation home on Martha’s Vineyard. Newly married, visibly in love, they are expecting their first child. They are, of course, cooking. He has invited his college buddy and best friend Tom for the weekend; she has invited her co-worker Beth. They deny that it is a set-up. “No harm in introducing them. What’s the worst that can happen?” Karen says. The four are the picture of innocence as they drift out, with their wineglasses to watch the sun go down. For the audience, there is a chill in the air, because we already know the worst that can happen.
Time speeds up in the next three scenes, which take place after Tom and Beth’s divorce. She has a new friend – actually a former lover with whom she had a secret extramarital affair. He is ecstatically happy with his new lady. As they confide in Gabe and Karen, old, buried resentments and expectations surface. Later, alone together in their bedroom, Gabe and Karen are forced to wonder when the minutiae of living replaced the joy of loving in their own lives.
Sounds simple but it’s powerful stuff. Played against John Iacovelli’s smoothly changing set, accented with dynamite lighting by York Kennedy, it becomes a riveting spectacle – not of great or heroic events, but of the everyday realities of life. Among the performances, Geisslinger’s Tom gets the highest marks but director Richard Seyd has forged the quartet into a true ensemble.