Some theater succeeds because it takes the audience on a riveting emotional journey.
Another type of theater captures the essence of a universal truth and does so with breathtaking simplicity.
It is in this latter camp that Donald Margulies’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “Dinner with Friends,” now at Le Petit Theatre, resides.
Years ago, food writers Gabe and Karen introduced their friends Tom and Beth. The couple fell in love and married, but one night as Gabe and Karen are making dinner, they are astonished to learn that the two are filing for divorce.
Margulies examines the two marriages around a dinner table. We see the couples age and experience the effects of Tom and Beth’s breakup on Gabe and Karen, who feel as though they must choose sides.
The dialogue is real, warm, witty and decidedly human; the experience could as easily be called “Theater with Friends.” Every few minutes during the course of the play, couples in the audience would exchange a nudge or a pat, or just look at each other and smile when a particular line hit home. They knew what these characters were talking about.
The play makes keen observations without feeling preachy or offering overwrought monologues. The director, René J.F. Piazza, and his cast stay true to the spirit of the play. Eddie Simon seems most at ease with this style of acting. When his character Tom talks about his loneliness, it seems as though you are seated at the table sharing a glass of shiraz with him and listening to his plight.
Chelle Duke, as Karen, is pitch perfect in capturing her character’s passive-aggressive tone and her nuanced facial expressions say everything her words are not saying. Leon Contavesprie is totally believable in his portrayal of the seemingly docile Gabe. His meek posture shows Gabe’s struggle with midlife and his quiet acceptance of his lot.
In addition, the tender chemistry between Contavesprie and Duke shows all of the emotional colors needed to knit this play together.
Liz Launey does a good turn for the most part as Beth. Her bitterness is felt in her fiery argument with Tom, but perhaps this is a part she is just a little too young to play.
Kathleen Van Horn’s costuming works well and is particularly strong in supporting Tom’s character. The lack of socks with his tailored business suit in the second act is a perfect touch, as are his high-end leather gloves in Act 1.
On the other hand, the women’s costuming falls a bit flat because it doesn’t seem to reflect Karen’s big personality or Beth’s artistic flair.
Perhaps it was simply a line item that was unrealistically small, but Jonathan Perry-Marx’s set did not tell the story of these people’s lives. Tom and Karen’s home should be a bit like visiting a cooking show kitchen. If his budget couldn’t afford designer cabinets and contemporary art, at the very least food writers Tom and Karen’s tablecloth should have been crisply pressed and the copper pots hanging on the wall should have gleamed. The set looked like a set and not a home. For this play, which is so much about the home and the lives these people shared between its walls, it just missed the mark.
The lighting worked well, painting beautiful still lives as it faded between scenes. In one memorable moment at the close of Act 1, Contavesprie’s face perfectly reflects what has happened — and what he fears is about to come.
Though I am not generally a huge fan of sequels, I would love to see Margulies revisit these couples as they coast into retirement, grandchildren and joint pain.
I’d like to share another glass of wine, hear about what’s happening in their lives and have another memorable dinner with friends.