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Dinner with Friends, which in 2000 won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for its author, Donald Margulies, does not start promisingly. Karen and Gabe, a couple in their forties who collaborate on cookery projects, bustle about their shipshape Connecticut kitchen, feeding their friend Beth. As they serve a lemon almond cake made with polenta, they natter about ingredients in a way annoyingly familiar to anyone with foodie friends. Beth then drops a bombshell, and the play, given a first-rate production by the Roundabout Theatre and director Pam MacKinnon, begins to draw us in.
Beth, imbued with persuasive passive-aggressive intensity by Heather Burns, reveals that Tom, her husband of 12 years, has left her for another woman. Karen and Gabe are stunned. They express sympathy for the effect this action will have on their friends’ family, which includes two children.
On Allen Moyer’s efficient set, walls slide up and down, suggesting the way in which a couple’s openness to each other fluctuates over the course of a relationship. If Margulies’ play were primarily about that most tilled of literary subjects, infidelity, it would not exert much of a pull. The evening’s power derives from an exploration of the way that separation can unsettle still-married friends.
When Tom learns that Beth has revealed their separation without him, he immediately attempts to air his side of the story. Gabe lends a more sympathetic ear than Karen, though even he asks Tom, played by Darren Pettie, whether his leaving isn’t self-indulgent: “Where would we be with everybody’s ids running rampant?”
The two-act evening is cannily structured, even though I’m not sure whether a flashback to a summer holiday on Martha’s Vineyard furnishes much beyond a suggestion that Tom’s need to womanise has always been present. Perhaps the scene bothered me for an admittedly more trivial reason: we are in the 1990s here, and Beth arrives with an iPod, which wasn’t released until 2001.
As long as Margulies probes his material through friendly, intense conversation, the drama works extremely well. When Gabe lapses into thematic speechifying, I was less taken, given that his interpreter, Jeremy Shamos, is elsewhere so expert at uncovering Margulies’ layers of mordant irony. (Marin Hinkle, as Karen, is more earnest.) Dinner with Friends is serious stuff, but as tastefully sprinkled with spice as one of Karen and Gabe’s impeccable culinary concoctions.