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Dinner With Friends

"Dinner With Friends," Donald Margulies' scathingly honest drama, places friendship and marriage under a merciless microscope. With clear-eyed candor and comedic flair, Margulies shows how fragile relationships are, how couples live complacently on illusions until a devastating event forces them to question all their previous beliefs.

Dinner With Friends

Dinner With Friends,” Donald Margulies’ scathingly honest Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, places friendship and marriage under a merciless microscope. With clear-eyed candor and comedic flair, Margulies shows how fragile relationships are, how couples live complacently on illusions until a devastating event forces them to question all their previous beliefs. Daniel Sullivan’s perceptive direction allows all four actors to shine.

The new Geffen Playhouse production opens dramatically when married food writers Gabe (Daniel Stern) and Karen (Rita Wilson) learn that their best friends Beth (Dana Delany) and Tom (Kevin Kilner) are headed for divorce.

Their immediate sympathy is with Beth, who reveals that Tom has been miserable throughout their marriage and is having an affair with a travel agent. Both are so desperate to preserve their cherished foursome and the security of a once-happy bond that they become judgmental, unwilling to understand the forces that made Beth and Tom’s marriage fail.

Individual scenes that ring painfully true distinguish “Dinner With Friends.” It’s easy to identify with the moment when Gabe, trying to be a good friend, offers advice after Tom confides in him. “I don’t want advice,” Tom lashes out. “I just want you to listen.” When Beth tells Karen that she’s met a new man, Karen begs her to live alone for a while, too immersed in her own viewpoint to comprehend Beth’s happiness.

Margulies highlights how many hidden agendas can exist in marriages when he points out that Tom has always pretended to admire Beth as an artist, while secretly regarding her as untalented. In a particularly gripping scene, Margulies also demonstrates the insanity of passion when Tom and Beth make love after their bitter separation and Tom explains, “Rage is an aphrodisiac.”

Wilson’s radiantly warm, vulnerable quality makes us care deeply about her even when she tries too hard to control her friends and her husband. Kilner is superb as the superficial but magnetic Tom, greedily grasping for new dreams and sensations. Delany is no cliched victim; she’s neurotic, critical, but recognizably human.

Stern has memorable climactic lines, and he invests them with almost unbearable heartache. Margulies gives him a piercing speech in which he mourns the passing of time when “the hair goes, the waist goes, the sex goes,” eloquently expressing universal fears of aging. Sexual anxiety has rarely been so effectively handled. Stern’s Gabe also touches on a tragic aspect of friendship: You sometimes lose all feeling for friends you expected to love forever.

Neil Patel’s set moves quickly and freely, perfectly capturing the upscale ambience of Martha’s Vineyard and Connecticut. The contrast of Gabe and Karen’s immaculate kitchen with Beth and Tom’s chaotically messy bedroom helps us to know the characters intimately. Costume designer Jess Goldstein, by dressing Gabe neatly and Tom in disheveled sweater and corduroys, underlines these differences to strong dramatic effect, and Riu Rita’s bright lighting emphasizes the orderly exterior that masks churning emotions beneath.

Dinner With Friends

Geffen Playhouse; 498 seats; $43 top

  • Production: Geffen Playhouse presents a play in two acts by Donald Margulies. Directed by Daniel Sullivan.
  • Crew: Set, Neil Patel; lighting, Rui Rita; costumes, Jess Goldstein; music and sound, Michael Roth; production stage manager, Elizabeth A. Brohm. Opened and reviewed Oct. 4, 2000; closes Oct. 29. Running time: 2 HOURS, 5 MIN.
  • Cast: Beth - Dana Delany Tom - Kevin Kilner Gabe - Daniel Stern Karen - Rita Wilson