The production trumps the play in Dinner With Friends
By Donald Margulies. Directed by Jennifer Clement. A Dirty Manhattan Equity Co-op production. At Studio 1398 on Thursday, November 8. Continues until November 24
As anybody who’s been there can tell you, keeping your groove going within the confines of a long-term monogamous relationship ain’t easy. How can danger, which fuels eroticism, survive the containment of commitment? How can a couple maintain romantic abandon within the context of everyday responsibilities? (And how do all of those zoo animals manage to mate in captivity?) This is the territory that playwright Donald Margulies explores in Dinner With Friends. But he sets wonky terms for the discussion.
In this Pulitzer-winner from 2000, the explosion of one marriage rocks the foundations of another. Two couples—Tom and Beth, and Gabe and Karen—form a tight social unit until Beth reveals that Tom has been cheating on her for ages and has finally left her for another woman.
The dynamics in Tom and Beth’s relationship are not nuanced. In fact, Tom is such a passive, narcissistic, manipulative asshole that I wanted to punch him in the head. When Tom dumps Beth suddenly, he tells her that he hates her, that he was faking it when he said that he believed in her as an artist, and that—although he never discussed his unhappiness with her—it was her fault for not picking up on the signs. He dismisses their 12 years and two kids together as a mistake, and, in the face of criticism, he gets all victimized and sulky.
Clearly, Tom is the play’s purest embodiment of the disruptive id, but does the id have to be such a dink? Aren’t there ways to make friends with it, to allow it to find less destructive expression? In Dinner With Friends, Tom’s selfishness runs rampant for so long—and the alternatives presented (in Gabe and Karen’s marriage) are so weak—that I lost interest in the story. Yes, we do inevitably get more shading about culpability as the evening goes on, but not enough to make me more sympathetic to Tom. The play kept me in a fixed position, which isn’t very interesting.
The production, on the other hand, is gorgeous. There’s beauty in the rhythms of Margulies’s writing, especially in the overlapping dialogue, and, under Jennifer Clement’s direction, this cast of four makes music with the flow. Paradoxically, Ben Ratner is particularly good as Tom. Ratner, who works a lot in film and TV, has a phenomenally easeful delivery and scruffy, doglike charm. (If Ratner couldn’t make me like the guy, nobody could.) Loretta Walsh is also seamlessly convincing as Beth, even in an odd flashback scene in which the character, as written, almost feels like another person. On opening night, Jenn MacLean-Angus’s performance as Karen almost seemed shy at first, but it opened into affecting depth: the revelation of her brittle character’s sense of entrapment provided the most moving moments of the evening. Noel Johansen’s Gabe is also strong, although always a little showier, a little less thoroughly internalized than the other actors’ work.
Former actor Peter Wilds’s first set design is crazily successful. Using budget-minded modular pieces and a limited palette of black, white, grey, cream, and pale green, he creates a series of deluxe interiors for the affluent characters. And then there’s the ceiling of clear light bulbs. Yowzer.
The play got my back up, but the production is stylin’.