“You never know what couples are like when they’re alone.” 

Thus speaks one of the characters in Donald Margulies’ Dinner With Friends, a play which allows us, the audience, to see what its two couples are like behind closed doors. Like flies on the fourth wall, we observe Gabe and Karen’s (and Tom and Beth’s) most private moments.  We also see each couple as they see the other, and what they see is often quite different from the other couple’s intimate reality.

Gabe and Karen have invited their two closest married friends for dinner, but Beth arrives sans Tom.  With their and her kids upstairs watching a video and Gabe and Karen going on about this and that, Beth suddenly breaks down and confesses that Tom is not really away on business.  He’s left her, after 12 years of marriage, for a stewardess.  (Actually, she’s a travel agent, but Beth refuses to afford her that slightly more prestigious title.) Gabe and Karen are aghast. Tom and Gabe have been best friends since college, and Gabe and Karen introduced Beth to Tom a dozen summers ago.

Tom shows up later to tell his side of the story, and in Rashomon fashion, each has an entirely different take on reality.  Whereas Beth sees Tom’s affair with the “stewardess” as an unjustified betrayal, Tom views this as a logical consequence of Beth’s coldness. She never touches him anymore, he tells his friends. Tom even performed an experiment to prove this. For a week, he refrained from touching her, to see if she would give him a simple caress.  She didn’t.

Ironically, Tom and Beth’s sex life is hotter than ever, as we see for ourselves when a fight in the bedroom leads to passion of a different sort.

A flashback to the day Beth was introduced to Tom at Gabe and Karen’s summer house in Martha’s Vineyard reveals just how much Gabe and Karen have invested in Tom and Beth’s becoming a couple.  No wonder each of them (and especially Karen) feels personally betrayed by their friends’ breakup.  There may even be a bit of jealousy there, especially after Beth too finds a lover.  With both Tom and Beth enjoying the best sex of their lives, how can an old married couple find similar excitement in the bedroom?

Just how much Margulies’ 2000 Pulitzer Prize-winning play rings true was proven by the comments of the 70somethings watching Theatre 40’s excellent production. Despite being twice the age of the actors on stage, they clearly were seeing younger versions of themselves and their friends in Margulies’ two couples.

Making a welcome return to Theatre 40’s stage are Grinnell Morris and Julie  Lancaster, who gave by far the standout performances in last season’s Dangerous Corner.  Here they do equally fine work as Gabe and Karen, whose happy marriage may have its own cracks under the surface. Garrett McKechnie and Dee Ann Newkirk get the more “colorful” roles of the mismatched Tom and Beth, and both are excellent. McKechnie makes clear Tom’s frustration at having a “cold fish” for a wife, and Newkirk proves that Beth is no cold fish in a scene in which she waxes rapturous about her new lover’s talents in the bedroom.

Laura James is a director who clearly knows how to get the best from her actors. Paramount in the quartet’s performances is just how natural they are.  All four are listening, and responding in a way which is never less than spontaneous. All pass the StageSceneLA acting test (if you walked past them, you would never for a moment guess that they were performing a scene) with flying colors.

Jeff G. Rack’s set design looks good and works well for the play’s six different locations, though I couldn’t help wishing for a way to make scene changes swifter without having stagehands work so hard at moving furniture.  Meghan Hong’s lighting and Yasmeen Mustaklim’s costumes are both first-rate.  Tyler Townsend’s sound design works well for background noises, though in the first scene’s exchanges between parents and off-stage children the kid’s voices are too obviously being turned on and off.

Those in search of grownup entertainment featuring fine, thought-provoking writing and terrific performances could not do better than to enjoy dinner … no, make that an evening of theater … with these friends.

Theatre 40, 241 S. Moreno Dr., Beverly Hills.

–Steven Stanley
April 23, 2008
Photos: Ed Krieger

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