Dinner with Friends opens CHT season
Play Review by Peter Heck
The Kent County News, January 14, 2016
“This Production Hits the Mark”
CHURCH HILL — “Dinner with Friends,” now playing at Church Hill Theatre, is a comedy-drama about two married couples undergoing a crisis in their friendship. Written by Donald Margulies, the play won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2000, as well as several awards for off-Broadway productions. It was made into an HBO film the next year, and was nominated for two Emmy Awards, including one for outstanding made-for-TV film. It has been revived several times in New York and London. The Church Hill production, directed by Pat Patterson, is the 2016 season opener.
The plot revolves around two couples; one, Gabe and Karen, are a pair of professional food writers. They introduced the other couple, Tom, a lawyer, and Beth, his artistic wife, a number of years before the action of the play.
As the play begins, Beth is having dinner with Gabe and Karen, who have just returned from a food-oriented tour of Italy. As the hosts give rapturous descriptions of the meals they had on their tour, Beth seems distracted. At last, when Gabe leaves the room, she breaks into tears. She tells Karen that Tom is leaving her.
The rest of the play follows from that revelation, as the four try to work out the implications of one couple breaking up. They have been friends for 12 years, and Tom and Gabe were best friends in college. They have been sharing vacations every year and celebrating such milestones as jobs and children together. We see the characters in different combinations, including all four together in a flashback to the Martha’s Vineyard vacation where Tom and Beth met.
While there are comic moments, the focus is primarily on how the breakup changes the relationships of all the characters — even throwing stress into the apparently solid marriage of Gabe and Karen.
With only four characters on stage, the play depends a good deal on strong performances from all the actors — and this production hits the mark. We get to see various sides of each character as they interact in different contexts, in good and bad times. At times, the interactions become very intense, and the language reflects the anger level of the characters.
Paul Briggs, already well known to local theater-goers, is cast as Gabe. He convincingly captures the character’s reluctance to be drawn into the emotional maelstrom that is created by the deterioration of his friends’ marriage. At the same time, he projects a touching warmth toward Karen, who pushes him to take a more active role in trying to mend the relationship — even after he begins to wonder what’s left to mend.
Minnie Maloney does a good job with the role of Karen, who is a sort of mother figure for the “family” the four main characters see themselves as when the play begins. She nicely conveys the character’s common sense, mixed with a slight judgmental streak that immediately has her taking sides as she learns of the impending breakup.
Darlene Greer, who has both onstage and backstage credits at CHT, plays Beth. She portrays the character’s fragility and sharp edges effectively, letting the audience see her strengths and weaknesses.
Christopher Wallace, who has a degree in theater performance from Salisbury University, is convincing in the role of Tom. He does a good job of taking the character through a range of moods from argumentative to playful — a strong performance by a CHT newcomer. One can hope he comes back for more productions down the road.
This is a meaty play that takes a serious look at modern relationships. But it’s not all sober. –There is quite a bit of humor in both the dialogue and the situation. With only a few people in the audience for the preview performance, the effect of this comic relief was dampened. Appreciative audience laughter adds a great deal to the theater experience and I suspect that upcoming audiences will find themselves laughing as well as reflecting on the play’s serious themes.
The play is a challenge to the set designer, with seven different scenes, each with its own distinct flavor. Michael Whitehill responded to the challenge with spare sets that allow relatively smooth changes of scenery. Translucent panels help separate the stage into discrete areas, and different colors of lighting underline the moods of the different scenes; an effective change from the ver y elaborate sets CHT audiences are used to.
An added element is the original score by Michael Roth, based on a spare pattern of piano arpeggios behind quiet melodic statements on wind instruments. It suggests the timeless nature of the characters’ experiences more effectively than a score based on the pop music of the era. And it creates a focus for the audience during the sometimes complicated set changes.
Debra Ebersole handled the costumes for the show, and she did a good job of finding outfits that advance the characterization as well as make a pleasing visual statement.
“Dinner with Friends” is playing Jan. 15 to 31. Performances are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. The play contains sexually explicit language and situations, making it inappropriate for children or younger teens.
Tickets are $20 for adults and $10 for students; discounts are available for theater members. For reservations, call 410-556-6003 or visit www.churchilltheatre.org.