Playwright Donald Margulies has an enviable gift: the ability to draw complex, nuanced characters and make them seem entirely real. In "Dinner With Friends," which receives its West Coast premiere in director Daniel Sullivan's smoothly flowing production, Margulies focuses on four old friends and the bonds among them.

Playwright Donald Margulies, whose previous efforts include such acclaimed works as “Sight Unseen” and “Collected Stories,” has an enviable gift: the ability to draw complex, nuanced characters and make them seem entirely real. In “Dinner With Friends,” which receives its West Coast premiere in director Daniel Sullivan’s smoothly flowing production, Margulies focuses on four old friends and the bonds among them. The comedy features plenty of humorous moments, but behind the wit lie more serious themes — questions about commitment, fidelity, love and the very meaning of relationships.

Gabe (John Carroll Lynch) and Karen (Jane Kaczmarek) are the perfect Connecticut couple. Well off and possessing exquisite taste and reasonable talent, they inhabit a world in which finding an ideal Italian tomato is a matter of prime importance. They have their tense moments, of course, but they are a loving, mutually respectful pair.

So when best friend Beth (Julie White) comes for dinner and breaks the news that she and hubby Tom (T. Scott Cunningham) are ending their marriage, Karen and Gabe are shocked, to say nothing of appalled. We soon find out that Tom’s resolved not to reconcile, having spent the past decade feeling stifled and unappreciated. Now he’s taken up with Nancy (who remains unseen), a travel agent some 15 years younger than him. “All of my stories are new again,” he tells Gabe without the slightest hint of irony.

But Margulies’ play isn’t really about Tom and Beth’s breakup; it’s about how Gabe and Karen react to the situation, which is not well. Karen can’t even stand to be in the same room with Tom. More importantly, both she and Gabe feel a creeping insecurity, wondering if perhaps their fail-safe marriage may also be susceptible to such shocks.

Unfortunately, Margulies gets distracted from the central issues and bogs this work down with lifestyle critiques. A particularly keen observer of social foibles, he can send up upper-middle-class consumer culture like nobody else, but the playwright’s superb jokes obscure the drama.

The curious structure Margulies employs doesn’t help. For the opening of act two, the action is set 12 years earlier, at a summer house on Martha’s Vineyard, where Karen and Gabe are busy fixing up Beth and Tom. Then it’s back to the present again — or rather, six month hence — only this time, two scenes are played simultaneously. The finale is especially pat. It’s a pity Margulies hasn’t honed this work more, making it edgier, for “Dinner” has much to say about the state of modern marriage and friendship.

As for the acting, no quibbles. Lynch plays Gabe as ostensibly jolly but discreetly hints at regrets not far below the surface. Kaczmarek keeps Karen just this side of too uptight, which makes the character interesting if not exactly someone we wish we knew in real life. Cunningham’s Tom is attractive (and foolish) enough to elicit some sympathy, even if one can’t really conscience his behavior. And White plays Beth as more complicated than audiences may initially realize.

Thomas Lynch’s detailed sets are a series of interchanging open-sided cubes (well lit by Pat Collins) that glide along a vast black stage. All that empty space makes a fine metaphor for the gaping abyss that exists for these characters, and perhaps for us as well, outside the safety of often glum routine.

Dinner with Friends

South Coast Repertory, Costa Mesa, Calif.; 507 seats; $45 top

Production

A South Coast Repertory presentation of a play in two acts by Donald Margulies. Directed by Daniel Sullivan.

Creative

Sets, Thomas Lynch; costumes, Candice Cain; lighting, Pat Collins; music, Michael Roth; stage manager, Scott Harrison. Opened Oct. 23, 1998. Reviewed Oct. 24. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Cast

Karen - Jane Kaczmarek
Gabe - John Carroll Lynch
Beth - Julie White
Tom - T. Scott Cunningham
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