A couple dissolves a marriage with minimal angst while the breakup of a four-way friendship leaves more lasting despair in Donald Margulies’ “Dinner With Friends.” In many ways the subtlest and most intelligent examination of the fragile and yet vital bonds of friendship since Yasmina Reza’s “Art,” “Dinner With Friends” is a fine play, but one constantly wishes it were a bit finer. Plays of such natural wit and universal appeal are relatively rare both on and off Broadway these days, so “Dinner With Friends” is to be welcomed, even in this less than superbly cast production at the Variety Arts Theater. But for the same reason, it’s hard not to mourn the play’s shortcomings as much as one lauds its strengths.
The white canvas of “Art” that precipitated the near dissolution of a friendship is reflected here as the more everyday matter of a broken marriage. While the kids watch videos upstairs, fortysomething Gabe (Matthew Arkin) and Karen (Lisa Emery) are serving a typically elaborate dinner for their friend Beth (Julie White) when she suddenly dissolves in tears, revealing that her husband, Tom (Kevin Kilner), wants out of their marriage.
The usual reasons have been given — Beth wails them out between sobs, as White’s robustly funny performance establishes itself as the evening’s most entertaining: The passion has died, Tom says Beth never understood him anyway, and there’s another woman, too, a travel agent whom Beth insists on calling a stewardess. Gabe and Karen spout the usual indignation — Karen rather more indignantly than Gabe — and murmur the usual coos of sympathy.
But after the initial fireworks, the second scene finds the ruptured pair bickering over her decision to spill the beans before they fall passionately back into bed together — the failed marriage is dispatched in a perfunctory, almost platitudinous manner. In a neat reversal of the Tolstoy dictum, Margulies wittily seems to suggest that all unhappy marriages are alike (“The stuff pouring out of his mouth … it’s like bad greeting cards,” as Beth aptly describes Tom’s arias of justification), while it’s the happy ones that show the fine distinctions.
Tom exults in the general rejuvenation brought about by his relationship with a 26-year-old, while Beth soon finds herself deliciously embroiled in a new romance. But Gabe and Karen remain shell-shocked as they begin to sort out the significance of the breakup to their own union, questioning the reality of a friendship they thought they’d shared with an equally happy couple.
Does Karen’s frosty contempt for Tom indicate unspoken fears about her husband’s potential for betrayal? Does Gabe’s empathy for him spring from natural affection or a feeling more sinister? In the play’s sharpest scenes in the second act, the men and women pair off in the aftermath of the breakup and try to establish a new equilibrium for their friendships, but none can be found. Gabe sees Tom’s rejection of his marriage as a repudiation of his own: “Karen and I were a big part of that terrible life you had to get the hell away from,” as he puts it. And Karen must also face Beth’s cool dismissal of the “family” Karen feels they all once constituted: “The family you’ve chosen is just as fucked up and fallible as the one you were born into.”
“Dinner With Friends” is highlighted by many such tart, sad and thoughtful meditations on loyalty and compromise, the uses and abuses of friendship and the need for passion vs. the comforts of duty and routine. But while it serves up a host of interesting issues, it never really settles down to explore deeply or passionately any of them. It ultimately comes off as a series of cold appetizers without a hot main course. (And one canape should have been skipped: a long flashback to the day that Beth and Tom met that doesn’t add much to the meal, other than an odd, extraneous suggestion that Tom once had feelings for Karen.)
Margulies leaves a lot for his actors to intimate in the pauses between studiously natural dialogue, and as directed by Daniel Sullivan, not all the performers are capable of filling in these emotional blanks. The role of Tom should be played by an actor who cuts against his smarminess rather than accents it, as Kilner’s handsome suavity does. And Arkin is too wan and lacking in immediacy as Gabe, whose monologue about the compromises and disappointments of married middle age is the play’s emotional centerpiece.
The women are superior, with Emery, so fine in last season’s “Far East,” giving a sensitively etched performance in a role that could come off as brittle caricature. White, as noted, earns the lion’s share of the laughs, particularly in the opening scene as her utterly uninterested responses to her friends culinary chitchat gives intimations of the emotional storm to come.
Neil Patel’s set neatly supplies the surface details of these upper-middle-class urban lives, and Jess Goldstein’s costumes are telling — after the muddied boots and parka of his mundane marriage, Tom returns resplendent in a beige, Armani-esque suit.
Although it was previously produced at both the Humana Festival of New Plays and South Coast Repertory, “Dinner With Friends” still feels a few drafts away from fulfilling its considerable potential.