Discreet harm of the bourgeoisie
Prize-winning drama examines middle-class angst
One of the hallmarks of quality drama is that it draws us into, and casts sympathetic illumination on, the lives of people we might otherwise never encounter or even might deliberately avoid. Anyone who dreads being stuck at a nicely appointed dinner table nibbling exquisitely prepared dainties and sipping vintage wine while being subjected to the conversation of well-heeled, well-meaning and utterly vacuous companions may shudder with dismal anticipation at the opening scene of Donald Margulies’ Dinner with Friends. But skipping out on this dinner party based on first impressions would be a mistake.
Host couple Gabe and Karen, played to nearly unbearable perfection by William Johnson and Sue Ruttenburg, are dishing up the dainties and prattling away nonstop about their recent sojourn with the hilariously quaint and wizened hostess of a rustic Italian villa that they are writing a food piece about. The garrulous embodiment of bourgeois comfort and entitlement, Gabe and Karen bustle about the kitchen dishing up overcooked observations and gourmet desserts with equal aplomb.
Just when this picture of blissful domestic complacency has been composed to seemingly hermetic perfection, it’s shattered by the anguished crying of their till-now quietly congenial guest, Beth, whose tearful confession of abrupt abandonment by her husband, Tom, effectively disintegrates Gabe and Karen’s carefully constructed atmosphere of food-obsessed coziness and gets the ball rolling for the unraveling of this artful domestic drama. It doesn’t stop them from serving dessert, though.
Alternating scenes between Gabe and Karen and Beth and her erstwhile husband Tom, the play bounces back and forth between simple kitchen and bedroom sets as it traces the history of the couples’ relationships. Margulies masterfully weaves exposition through the dialogue, revealing the characters’ past while portraying their present.
The artistic Beth is the most obviously sympathetic of the four, and Cynthia Lammel does a brilliant job of portraying her as an intelligent, bewildered and wounded woman. Her opposite number, Tom, a lawyer who we are introduced to as a philanderer and abandoner, is played with convincing, near frantic sincerity by Phil Ruttenburg. The two, both as characters and actors, make a great stage couple.
Margulies’ script explores the lives of these superficially banal, 40-something couples with a sympathetic eye, a fine ear for detail-laden conversation and perhaps just a hint of sentimental condescension. This cast, listed as four co-producers with no directorial credit, brings the script to life with enough empathy to elevate sentimentality to genuine feeling.