Threshold’s “Dinner With Friends” Hits Home
AT THE INTERMISSION of Threshold Repertory’s current production, Don Margulies’ “Dinner with Friends,” my first thought was, “If I were not in a committed relationship, I would avoid this show like the plague!”
By the end of Margulies’ two-hour dissection of the institution of marriage, I realized that like the four strong characters portrayed, I had changed my perception, or had it changed for me: for everyone, young, old, male, female, married, single, floating or grounded, this beautifully acted, Pulitzer Prize-winning drama should be required viewing.
A showcase of unstintingly realistic dialogue, virtually every word cuts so close to the bone, we squirm… or revel in our good fortune in sustaining a long, strong, reasonably happy existence with our significant other. Or both.
While effective dialogue is an essential element in theater of such high caliber, the impact of any play is dependent, of course, on the skill of the actors. Here, all four cast members, as well as Director Lon Bumgarner, bring a boatload of impressive credentials, the kind of experience for which there is no substitute.
As deceptively simple as the play’s title, the story of the lives of two married couples, Karen and Gabe, and Tom and Beth, opens with what seems a perfectly ordinary situation. During dinner at their home, Karen (Erin Wilson) and Gabe (Laurens Wilson) gleefully dominate the conversation, regaling Beth with animated tales of their recent vacation in Italy. From the get-go, both Wilsons prove their expertise in establishing an authentic interpretation of married people, smiling as they exchange sidelong glances, that universal sign that all may not be quite so rosy as it appears. Interruptions by the kids yelling (off-stage) provide another familiar note and a breeze of laughter.
Beth (Pamela Galle) shows polite interest, making excuses for her absent husband, Tom, often away on business, yet manages to telegraph with polished subtlety that there is something decidedly wrong. Suddenly, Beth bursts forth with the shocking news that Tom has left her for another woman. Galle, accomplished actress, director, producer, and Executive Director of Theatre Rep, has already gained our rapt attention.
Later that night, Tom (Jay Danner) waltzes into his and Beth’s home (the one set serving multiple purposes), claiming he was stuck at the airport due to bad weather and unable to find a hotel room. He proposes to stay the night, igniting the already-simmering pot o’ trouble and intimidating Beth with demands for details of her dinner with their best friends. He is incensed when he discovers Beth has told them “your side of the story,” appears to indulge his blood lust, and rushes out into the blizzard to present himself at Karen and Gabe’s to defend himself.
Erin Wilson executes a brilliant turn from her first-scene bubbly self to a staunch, unforgiving defender of Beth’s untenable position. From the easygoing character he created initially, Laurens Wilson becomes a dejected husband, caught between identifying with Tom, as unwilling to admit, perhaps even to himself, that he understands Tom’s issues, as he is to oppose his wife’s stance.
Act 2 begins with a flashback, the first time Beth and Tom meet at Karen and Gabe’s Martha’s Vineyard summer home some twelve years earlier. Oh, Karen and Gabe are so loving, congratulating themselves on their own recent marriage, yet even then split on their opinions of this matchmaking Karen has arranged. The angst-ridden Beth we knew from Act 1 morphs here into a butterfly, dashing in from the beach, a free-spirited artist clutching her sketchbook, initially angry at Tom’s arrogance, then charmed.
Back to the present: In the next scene a few months after the Act 1 events, Galle convincingly stages yet another blossoming, as a more mature woman giddily in love again—with Dave, an ex-co-worker of Tom’s. Coming to tell Karen of her starry-eyed intention to marry Dave, Beth defends her decision in the face of Karen’s urging her to take her time, assess her life, go off alone for a while and paint. But Beth insists she is no longer interested in her art, and ends by saying outrageous things to Karen, who finally lets her own vulnerability show.
Danner’s portrayal of a slick, nattily dressed, 43 year-old Tom, in the following scene set in a bar where he meets Gabe, adds another dimension to his carefully-built character. Tom’s essential selfishness, cynicism and shallowness come shining through as he boasts of being in love with a much younger woman, a perfectly believable development. Casually mentioning that Beth and Dave had “a thing” two years into his marriage to Beth, he raises our ire, as well as Gabe’s. He dismisses his years-long relationship with Gabe, clearly far too busy now to bother with continuing to associate with an old married guy with family values Tom does not, and does not want to, share.
In their bedroom on Martha’s Vineyard that night, Karen and Gabe are left with doubts about their marriage, their life choices, wondering if they, too, could, or should, seek greener pastures. Their coming together, at Karen’s asking “Don’t you miss me?” was the most affecting scene in the play for me, finally bringing the tears I had willed away during other startlingly realistic human moments.