Dinner With Friends, Park Theatre | reviews, news & interviews
Dinner With Friends, Park Theatre
Dinner With Friends, Park Theatre
An astute American play puts marriage under the microscope
After 12 seemingly idyllic years, Tom and Beth’s marriage is over. That’s a concern for Gabe and Karen, partly because they care for their friends, and there’s the ugly business of choosing sides, but mainly because it causes them to call into question their own previously impervious union. In Donald Margulies’s ruminative 2000 Pulitzer Prize-winner, solipsism rules.
Margulies eschews the formal experimentation of dramas like Betrayal and Passion Play that cover similar terrain. Other than one extraneous flashback, this is no-frills storytelling laid out in strict contrapuntal fashion, with studiously naturalistic dialogue. There’s nothing ground-breaking about his premise, nor the comfortably middle-class navel-gazing that results. Yet at its best, this is a thoughtful piece with a powerful undertow. The narcissistic quartet seldom stray into likeable territory, but they are recognisably, achingly human.
Those portraits emerge gradually, details sketched in over an astutely observed couple of hours. Hari Dhillon and Finty Williams keep cynical, self-indulgent lawyer Tom and flaky New Age artist Beth the right side of caricature, illustrating how the differences that created a spark early on have calcified into resentment. Tom feels unheard and unappreciated; that, at least, is his petulant justification for starting an affair with his 26-year-old travel agent. He pleads his case in lawyerly fashion, hoping to win custody of their friends, while Beth tugs at the heartstrings with her tearful version of events.
Most concerning for their shellshocked friends (Shaun Dooley and Sara Stewart, pictured above right), separation actually agrees with them. Why stay in a draining marriage when you can start again? That’s a less subversive sentiment now, though the conflation of personal choice and collective expectation is still potent. So, too, are the insufferably smug, covertly competitive food writers Gabe (Dooley) and Karen (Stewart), boasting in tandem about culinary travels while maintaining the glossy veneer of their enviable Connecticut lifestyle. If you don’t recognise them from your Facebook or Instagram feed, that monster is you. Beth finally vocalises her frustration at being kept around as the token screw-up, making them look even more perfect by comparison: “No matter how much I stir, the soup still sticks to the pot.”
The real break-up is not romantic, but the disruption of a friendship that’s functioned as a family unit. The four have raised their children together and implicitly agreed upon certain goals. Is ditching them a sign of courage or a rampant id, passion superseding loyalty? Dooley and Stewart superbly demonstrate how unnerving this breaking of the pact is for complacent Gabe and silkily patronising Karen, as they re-evaluate their shared history and struggle to articulate fears about an uncertain future. Will they hang on now that “practical matters have overtaken abandon”?
Tom Attenborough strikes a good tonal balance, waspish wit slickly delivered alongside pathos, though accents meander and Marguiles’s blunter lines go undisguised. David Woodhead’s sleek fantasy kitchen is a constant reminder of social pressure to achieve, conform and display, and if the piece itself falls short of real profundity, it’s still an engrossing peek beneath that surface.
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