Eugene Weekly : Theater : 8.5.10


Bangs and Whimpers
This is how relationships end — or not
by Suzi Steffen

Tom (Simon Strange) and Beth (Leigh Holliday), talking with their friends Gabe (Michael Walker) and Karen (Shannon Coltrane)

One imagines the director, the actors and the crew all muttering, “That sounds like my relationship!” at some point during the rehearsal process for Donald Margulies’ Dinner with Friends. That’s what many audience members said to each other at intermission and after the show, as they filtered out of the last play of the Very Little Theatre’s 81st season.


One of the two heterosexual couples in Dinner with Friends, the work that won Margulies a Pulitzer Prize, falls apart onstage. The seven-scene play opens with an extended riff between Karen (Shannon Coltrane) and Gabe (Michael Walker, whose acting skills overmatch everyone else on the stage and who makes the entire play worthwhile), cookbook writers who keep trying to outperform the other in tales of a recent trip to Italy. The recipient of those tales, Beth (Leigh Holliday), doesn’t look too happy. And where’s her husband, Tom (Simon Strange)? Doesn’t he love the food Karen and Gabe make just as much as Beth does?

Actually, he does. He just doesn’t like Beth very much. Margulies gives Tom smarm from the first scene he’s in, in which he spews faux-Robert-Bly “men’s movement” crap about being emasculated blah blah bullshit blah by his artist wife, to the last scene he’s in, in which he spews some more crap about his freedom and how he was forced into a certain role — one he’s left behind. Then poor Beth turns out to be not such a pleasant person herself. Her final encounter with Karen feels like just what it is: a scene, a script she’s memorized to say horrid things to her ostensible friend.

Perhaps the play should be called Dinner with “Friends” since the only time we see any real friendship is at the beginning of the second act, during a scene set 12 years before the bulk of the play. Even then, that scene’s remarkable mostly for its costumes, which bring back the 1980s with all-too-agonizing fidelity (props to the costume team!). 

So what happens in the play? Beth and Tom abandon each other and their friends, and Gabe and Karen have to deal with the fallout. For long-time partners, any reflection of troubled relationships will of course bring up worries and stresses — one audience member standing near me at intermission looked both horrified and rueful as she talked to her female friends about how close this play cut to her relationship — and Gabe and Karen don’t exactly have the perfect marriage.

Even director Maggie Tryk acknowledges this, writing in her director’s note, “It is my hope that you will be … inspired to think about your own life and what you can do to make it even better.” Well, I don’t know about that; for one thing, if you’re married to a true jerk like Tom, the extraction process won’t be easy; and if you’re a Gabe or Karen, that final scene might scare the hell out of you, despite its essential hopefulness.

Plays with fewer actors tend to do well at regional theaters because they don’t require large salary commitments; that means Pulitzer Prize-winners like Dinner with Friends, set in an upper-class East Coast milieu (the families have a vacation house on the Vineyard, of course, and the men obviously met at private school), get produced fairly often. 

The VLT is a community theater and can produce musicals with large casts; it’s good to see serious plays on the stage as well. Irony and subtle grief mix in with the unmistakably vivid talk of food (who wouldn’t want to make some pasta with pomodoro sauce after Gabe and Karen’s discussion?) and a rather gaping lack — the children. Both couples supposedly have two children, whom we hear offstage in the opening scene, and of course some of the discussion about aging and relationships revolves around the kids. Since they’re not actually there, however, they serve as weirdly mute props for the adults.

Adults don’t always act like adults, a fact Tom underscores as sweet-natured Gabe tries to reason with him in a Manhattan bar near the train station. Sometimes that’s uncomfortable; sometimes it’s sad; sometimes, as during several belly-laugh moments that leaven this emotionally bleak play, it’s funny. Margulies pulls all of that in during the course of the play. If your relationship feels unshakably solid, this is no doubt a play to consider for a date night. Otherwise, go at your own risk.

Dinner with Friends continues through Aug. 14 at the Very Little Theatre. Tix at 541-344-7751.