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When polite conversation turns sour

Contributing Writer, Contributing Writer

Published: Friday, September 1, 2000

Updated: Sunday, August 17, 2008 16:08

Dinner and friends. Considering our everyday experiences, what could be so bad about the combination of these two things? According to Dinner With Friends playwright Donald Margulies, who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for this script, more than one would expect.

Opening in the gourmet Connecticut kitchen of a husband and wife who are both international food writers, the play examines the friendship of two couples: Karen and Gabe (Rita Wilson and Daniel Stern), and Beth and Tom (Dana Delany and Kevin Kilner).

Karen and Gabe appear to be the perfect couple. They finish each other's sentences, share a love of food, wine, and travel, and worry more about the ingredients of marinara sauce than just about anything else. Their counterparts, however, are not so lucky. The first scene opens to show Beth breaking down in tears before revealing that Tom has left her for a stewardess. The play moves on to explore issues of relationships, male and female identity, and the woes and pleasures of marriage.

Despite these serious topics, Dinner With Friends remains a comedy at its core ¾ and a successful one at that. Discussions about the "inevitable evolution" that married couples undergo are laced with lines like, "One lousy handjob could have saved your marriage!" The play also capitalizes on the comedic elements of food with questions such as "How do you like the shiraz?" and "What do you think of the Lemon Pollenta cake?" Such comedic elements lighten up more serious topics such as the repercussions of cheating and the dwindling amount of sex had by married couples.

All of this and more is delivered with exceptional wit by all of the actors, most notably Daniel Stern and Rita Wilson. Stern, who is probably best remembered for his work as Joe Pesci's cohort in Home Alone and Billy Crystal's fellow adventurer in City Slickers, keeps the laughs rolling with his goofy yet slyly sophisticated brand of humor. His partnership with Wilson yields numerous off-the-bat exchanges that leave the audience grinning and waiting for more.

Two-time Emmy Award-winning actress Dana Delany of China Beach plays Beth, giving an excellent portrayal of what she deems to be the "artsy and incompetent" woman whose realization of her husband's affair leads her to question the imposed conventions of society. No longer content to be "the little woman," Delany examines the love, anger, and sadness of her character with convincing verve, delivering a performance which is nothing less than excellent.

As for Kevin Kilner, perhaps the least known of the four actors, his representation of the sporty, chauvinistic Tom is nothing short of marvelous. With his imposing size and deft body language, his stage presence generates a slight feeling of uneasiness. After experiencing his rage, the audience is understandably weary of Tom's temper ¾ when his character gets angry, Kilner lights up the stage, bringing fierce, raw emotion to the surroundings.

The sets of Dinner With Friends consist of two kitchens ¾ one in an affluent Connecticut home, the other at a summer cottage on Martha's Vineyard ¾ a bedroom for each couple, a bar in Manhattan, and a patio outside of Karen and Gabe's home. Veteran set designer Neil Patel succeeds in creating surroundings that complement the dialogue and the evolution of the plot, and put into context exactly why Beth and Nick's divorce comes as such a shock. Both couples live very comfortably, and through the somewhat blase art work and dull furniture, one gets the impression that beyond the walls of the house one might find the stereotypical white picket fence, a symbol of the American dream.

Despite the lack of college-aged audience members, the play can be enjoyed by both younger and older generations. If nothing else, it gives a fascinating insight into that institution which many of us will enter - marriage. However, the play is targeted at a somewhat older audience, whom it is expected have engaged in post-marital quarrels. As a result, in certain scenes with lengthy conflicts, you might find your attention drifting to other things more relevant to your own life. Nonetheless, for avid theatre-goers or those just looking to enjoy an evening of laughs and drama, Dinner With Friends is a viable option ¾ for an evening of good entertainment and an assortment of post-play discussion, it doesn't get much better than this.

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