“The thing is, you never know what couples are like when they’re alone; you never do.”

This bit of wisdom is just one reason why Donald Margulies’ Dinner With Friends still packs a punch at Little Fish Theatre seventeen years after it won its playwright the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Weighing in on married coupledom is 40something Gabe (Patrick Vest), long wedded to Karen (Christina Morrell), and the couple being discussed are Tom (Doug Mattingly), Gabe’s best friend since college, and Beth (Renee O’Connor), the woman Gabe and Karen set Tom up with twelve years earlier, certain that theirs too would be a match made in heaven.

That Tom and Beth’s marriage might not be as heavenly as it once was becomes clear mid-meal when Beth reveals the reason for her husband’s absence from the table, news which alternately distresses, angers, and confuses her hosts.

There are, of course, two sides to every story, and the one Tom tells Gabe later that evening could hardly be more different from Karen’s.

And so, armed with both versions of the “truth,” Dinner With Friends leaves it up to us to decide who, if anyone, is at fault for a marriage gone sour, while posing thought-provoking question after question along the way.

How long can a couple reasonably expect to stay married? Can a fear of change or even simple inertia keep a two people together despite irreconcilable differences? Can married couples stay friends when one of them is now a couple of singles? How will the breakup of one marriage ultimately affect another?

Donald Margulies examines all of the above with perception, humor, and more than a few surprises along the way.

Like flies on the fourth wall, Dinner With Friends lets us observe Gabe and Karen’s and Tom and Beth’s most private moments, and not just as we perceive them but as each couple sees the other in ways that don’t necessarily match reality, whatever that is.

Nearly twenty years after Dinner With Friends had its 1998 Humana Festival world premiere, director Mark Piatelli brings out the best in a cast of three Little Fish favorites and one newcomer of cult TV fame.

Founding company member Vest does his accustomed terrific work as good guy Gabe, a man blessed with the ability to see two sides to every marriage while alternately despising and envying the path his best friend of two dozen years has taken.

The equally fine Morrell lets us see the cracks beneath Karen’s seeming marital bliss as well as the conflict between wanting to maintain the status quo and wondering whether Beth’s life journey might well be the more satisfying one.

Mattingly and Xena: Warrior Princess’s O’Connor match their costars every step of the way, the former giving us both victim and villain, a man whose search for an “authentic” life will either resonate or rankle, the latter revealing a complex mix of self-righteousness, insecurity, and resentment while raising doubts as to whether her marital woes are as black-and-white as she has initially painted them.

Scenic designer Christopher Beyries has created a set that morphs into seven different locations with minimal delay albeit with somewhat less authenticity than a higher budget design would allow. Stacey Abrams’ lighting varies appropriately from scene change to scene change, Marlee Delia’s costumes suit both characters and the situations in which they find themselves, and Tamara Becker’s authentic props range from wine glasses to cutlery to bits of the titular dinner with friends. Mattingly’s sound design effectively combines offstage children’s voices and scene-linking music.

Dinner With Friends is produced by Tara Donovan. Caroline Benzon is production stage manager.

For anyone who’s ever been married (happily or not) or observed other people’s marriages (happy or not) and wondered what’s really happening behind closed doors, Dinner With Friends makes for one appetizing theatrical meal.

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Little Fish Theatre, 777 Centre St. San Pedro.

–Steven Stanley
May 24, 2017
Photos: Mickey Elliott


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