Discomfiting ‘Dinner’ strikes the right chord
August 9, 2006
The question of existential ambivalence was fodder for a signature song, “The Gambler,” for Kenny Rogers. When Rogers observed that “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em” in 1978, it earned him a Grammy for best song.Playwright Donald Margulies revisited the topic, and fleshed it out considerably, in his 2000 drama “Dinner with Friends.” Margulies, too, was awarded for his insight into the issue of when to hang on and when to cut yourself loose; he earned the Pulitzer Prize for “Dinner with Friends.” But where Rogers spun a metaphorical lyric, ostensibly about poker, Margulies’ script goes straight to the heart of the matter. At what point, ask the two married couples in “Dinner with Friends,” do you throw in the towel on a relationship and declare yourselves hopelessly incompatible? Or is it wiser to accept that there will be differences, arguments, and even extended sexual slumps, in the hopes that the air will clear and sparks will reignite?
Theatre Aspen’s current production of “Dinner with Friends,” directed by Theatre Aspen artistic director David McClendon, raises those issues with clarity. Margulies, and the convincing cast of Neal David Seibel, Peggy Mundinger, Brandy Burre and Rick Stear, bring a discomforting level of truth to the stage. Any couple not on the most solid of foundations will find themselves squirming with recognition as the mirror is placed before them and their relationships. There is a directness to the production that makes it impossible to sidestep Margulies’ intentions to address not only the current state of marriage generally, but the state of the couples sitting in the theater seats.Gabe and Karen (Seibel and Mundinger) make for an enviable New York City couple – sophisticated, successful, great cooks. But no time is wasted in revealing the cracks in their relationship. They nag, disagree and exchange cold stares. And the bombshell news – that their best couple friends, Beth and Tom (Burre and Stear), are getting divorced – exacerbates their own fissures.By play’s end, Gabe and Karen are still together, while Beth and Tom have moved on to new loves and, in their own eyes, brighter futures. But Margulies isn’t showing his hand as to which he thinks is the better path. Gabe and Karen’s marriage has survived, but there is still a gap between them; the final scene has Gabe retreating into a book to avoid yet another conversation about their marriage. The scene ends on a positive moment, but it is brief and fleeting; this is not a happily-ever-after resolution. (It is also possible the play’s lone false note.)
Beth and Tom, meanwhile, are looking and feeling better than they have in years. But Margulies doesn’t quite buy their pitch. There is an element of doubt, even deceit, to their new lives. So while there may be a spell of bliss ahead – a few months? weeks? – you don’t leave the theater believing that separating has been the secret key to their eternal happiness, either.It’s not an uplifting message, that splitting up is as fraught as sticking it out. But Margulies seems to think that provoking the issue might be the best way toward reconciling the thorny problems that follow “till death do us part.” And in drawing the lines so well between male and female, friend and enemy, freedom and obligation, there is a wonderful night of entertainment on the bumpy road to marital equanimity.
“Dinner with Friends” plays at the Theatre Aspen tent tonight through Saturday, Aug. 12, and closes Monday, Aug. 14.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org