Donald Margulies’ play Dinner with Friends introduces us to two married couples who have been a close foursome of friends for over a decade, and what happens to this larger group when one of the marriages breaks apart.
Gabe (Antony Gargas) and Karen (Rebecca Rocheford Davies) are the ostensibly happy couple, a pair of middle-aged, middle-class “foodies” who, twelve years ago, introduced Tom (David Terry), Gabe’s best friend since college, to Karen’s artist friend Beth (Rachel Terry). Tom and Beth got married and both couples have been close ever since, raising their respective kids and routinely sharing a summer house. However, upon returning from a trip to Italy, Gabe and Karen are shocked when Beth tells them that Tom has left her for another woman. Unbeknownst to them, their friends’ marriage has been on the rocks for quite some time, and when Tom later arrives to tell his side of the story separately, he declares that he in fact has been miserable for the bulk of their marriage.
The meat of the play then primarily deals with Gabe and Karen’s attempts to come to terms with the situation and ponder their own astonishing ignorance of its long fermentation, as well as the implications this has for their collective and respective individual friendships, and even the status of their own marriage. We are thus witness to hurt and confused characters as they try to articulate their disapproval, relief, shock, elation and betrayal over this turn of events, and how their once cosy quartet has now been irrevocably disbanded.
In particular, the play explores how even very intimate friends and family members can have quite drastically differing perspectives on themselves, each other, and the relationships that bind them all together. For example, while Tom perceives his life-altering decision as a desperately needed personal rebirth, Gabe views their divorce as being “like a death”, mourning the consequent passing of the happy double pairing that had spent over a decade together. Indeed, perhaps the best scene in the play is a later meeting between Gabe and Tom in a bar, some months after the split.
Whereas in an earlier scene Tom had demanded Gabe merely be supportive and not pass any judgment, he is now prepared to listen to what his old friend has to say, and it is not good. As Gabe explains to Karen in a subsequent scene, “I don’t love him anymore”, and indeed one can palpably feel the man withdrawing from Tom as he tries to express to him his incomprehension and sense of personal betrayal, a betrayal of their collective lives together.
The second act begins with a flashback to Tom and Beth’s first meeting twelve years earlier at the summer house, and it is the only scene featuring all four characters at once. It is an interesting glimpse into the formation of the foursome, but is not particularly revelatory (other than one fleeting hint of a secret which is ultimately never paid off) and ultimately seems rather extraneous. By starting Act Two with a flashback one begins to expect that the remainder of the play will be set in this era, thus presenting a backwards narrative, but instead it is an isolated scene which mostly just seems structurally awkward. The remainder of the play resumes the initial timeline after the passage of a few months and ultimately reaches a fairly predicable conclusion.
All four of the actors in this production are very strong, each presenting a distinct, clear characterisation with confidence and conviction, ably directed by Kim Hardwick. Most scenes, even if they feature a third character, are primarily duologues, and these are well performed and make the relationships believable, if not altogether compelling. This failure to elicit a deep sense of engagement, however, is due to the words, not their speakers.
Indeed, it is hard for me to imagine how this play won a Pulitzer Prize. Although interesting, skillfully-written and delicately characterised, Dinner with Friends is really rather conventional and hardly innovative in style, execution or topic. While I do not wish to express any kind of disdain for the mainstream, it is nevertheless difficult to see sufficient merit in this unremarkable work to warrant such an accolade. It is a well-observed piece to be sure, but little in it is especially moving or profound, while the comedic moments are merely light touches to leaven the dour subject matter.
To be a little more even-handed, one’s reaction to this play would very much depend on the extent to which one identifies (perhaps unhappily so) with the characters and marital fissures portrayed. For those who are or have experienced such relationship woes, this might cut closer to the bone, but not necessarily. Having seen Belvoir’s excellent new production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? only the night before, this portrayal of an acrimonious marriage breakdown seems like weak sauce. Perhaps it is an unfair comparison to cite a modern classic of such stature, an epic of total emotional apocalypse, but given the similarities of both being four-handers about two married couples, one ostensibly happy, the other apparently seething with hostility and how revelations of each relationship reflect back on the other, one can’t help but compare the two texts.
Dinner with Friends is a very good production of a solid play, brought to life by talented actors. Just don’t expect anything groundbreaking. And whatever you do, don’t see it the night after Woolf!
Darlinghurst Theatre Company and Fishy Productions present
DINNER WITH FRIENDS
By Donald Margulies
Venue: Darlinghurst Theatre | 19 Greenknowe Ave, Potts Point
Dates: Thursday 26 July to Saturday 18 August
Times: 8pm Tuesday - Saturday, 5pm Sunday
Bookings: www.darlinghursttheatre.com or 02 8356 9987