Thursday, February 24, 2011

Dinner With Friends at Dramaworks

Last night was the first preview, in effect a dress rehearsal, of Dramaworks' production of Donald Margulies' play Dinner with Friends. It will open tomorrow. Although a "rehearsal" the preview had all the earmarks of an opening, not a beat missed.

As my literary maturation was greatly impacted by the likes of Updike, Yates, Cheever, and Carver (each of whom wrote numerous stories about couples), not to mention having lived most of my life in Connecticut (where Dinner with Friends is set), Margulies' play strikes a familiar funny bone. I know these people. It also helps to see the play performed by one of America's finest regional theaters, Dramaworks of West Palm Beach. I can only wonder how the incredibly intimate stage of its present quarters on Banyan Boulevard will translate into their more substantial Clematis Street home next November.

On its present postage stamp sized stage, Dramaworks effectively deals with the seven scene changes required by the play in its two acts, the action shifting from the present in act one to the past at the opening of act two and then back again to the present. The scene changes are effortless as the staging is simple, using mostly three props that can be shifted from being used as table and chairs and, when put together, can be turned into a bed. The changes, rather than being an impediment, seem to move the action along in an engaging way and on Dramaworks' present stage, all of this is happening right before you, bringing the audience into the performance.

The play strikes blunt truths in the finest tradition of tragicomedy, Margulies offering up both the humorous aspects of male female relationships and the wearing of time which can lead to destructive outcomes. As Margulies said in a PBS interview concerning his play Collected Stories: "My plays are fairly diverse, but their unifying theme is loss. The characters in my plays are all dealing with change in their family life, in their professional life, dealing with their own mortality. In Dinner With Friends it's change in friendships and evolving marriages. I think that time is a player in all of my work—very palpably in Collected Stories. The ways that people deal with the effect of time, which invariably entails loss, is probably what unites all these works."
And loss pervades Dinner with Friends, newlywed Gabe (Jim Ballard) and his wife Karen (Erin Joy Schmidt) introducing mutual friends Tom (Eric Martin Brown) and Beth (Sarah Grace Wilson), the two couples becoming best, inseparable friends. But a dozen years later Tom and Beth are breaking up, leaving Gabe and Karen pitching and rocking in their wake, questioning their own relationship and facing the sudden realization of friendships ending combined with the inevitable regrets of middle age.

In Scene 1 there is manic dinner conversation between Gabe and Karen about their recent gourmet vacation in Italy, Beth listening passively, finally revealing the real reason why Tom was not there, their marriage ending. She says that Tom said "This is not the life he had in mind for himself." That becomes a question mark that looms over all the characters for the rest of the play. The shock and betrayal is best expressed by Gabe: "All the vacations we spent together at the Vineyard. How could he walk away?"

In Scene 2, the same night, Tom returns to Beth's bedroom and is furious that she has told their friends the news without him. "You've got the advantage, now....They heard your side, so they are with you....You prejudiced my case!" There is some physical violence, culminating in sex. As Tom later explains to Gabe about the incident, "Rage can be an amazing aphrodisiac!"

Scene 3 finds Gabe and Karen parsing blame, Karen wondering about Tom, "the person you completely entrusted your fate to is an imposter....Maybe he never existed before...your friend." Gabe: " You think you're safe on solid ground and it cracks open."

The opening of Act II shows the couples on Martha's Vineyard twelve years earlier, when Gabe and Karen brought Tom and Beth together. In their youthful bantering, Tom says of Gabe and Karen, after a show of how happy the newlyweds are: "Their job is to make the rest of the world feel incompetent" and in that statement lies the unspoken friction between the couples in ensuing years.

Scenes II and III are interesting as they analyze the unraveling relationship between Beth and Karen, and then subsequently Tom and Gabe. In fact, there are a number of dynamics throughout the play, between the two couples, the two spouses, and then the two male and female friends. Each of these relationships are challenged and changed. In fact, and that is the genius of the play, what is unspoken is really as important in these two scenes, as in spite of the friends' surface reassurances about staying in one another's lives (Tom and Beth now with different significant others), one knows that this friendship is irreconcilably over. Gabe sadly says to Tom, "We were supposed to grow old and fat together," Tom responding, "Isn't that just another way to say misery loves company?"

The last scene finds Gabe and Karen ritualistically making up their bed in Martha's Vineyard, Karen asking "What were all those years about?" The same question we all ask ourselves at times.

Most of us have experienced that unsettling moment when best friends announce they are separating, realizing at the same time one's own life cannot go on as before.. The play rings with an inescapable universal truth, further brought home by the fine directing of J. Barry Lewis, who has orchestrated this piece to fully express his vision: "we create family out of our friends and acquaintances....we recognize a bit of ourselves, as we attempt to engage one another in meaningful relationships to fill the powerful need for family."

The actors are all newcomers to Dramaworks, all pros with extensive credentials. Perhaps the most difficult role to play is Gabe's as he is uptight with a mess of internal contradictions, instinctively empathizing with Tom on the one hand and condemning him on the other. Jim Ballard handles the role convincingly. Ballard is multi talented in that he also has a Broadway quality singing voice having seen him play the Wolf in Sondheim's Into the Woods at the Caldwell Theatre in Boca Raton last year

We saw Erin Joy Schmidt perform the lead a couple of months ago in Florida Stage's Goldie, Max and Milk. She was an ideal Karen, absorbing the shock of Beth's accusation of "You love it when I'm a mess...You need me to be a mess...I was comic relief," Ms. Schmidt dramatically delivering Karen's remorseful reply: "You're my family."

Eric Martin Brown was a convincing Tom, who feels liberated from what he feels was a loveless marriage: "I always felt inauthentic having this life...most of the time I was just being a good sport" (to which Gabe replies, "I thought we were just living our lives.") Interestingly, Brown attended the Yale School of Drama, where Margulies teaches (I wonder whether he was his student).

Sarah Grace Wilson is wonderful as Beth, the sorrowful little "artist" who awakens to the reality that her passion for art was just a substitute for living. And, we find out to our surprise, had a lover earlier in the marriage.

Having, myself, adapted two of Raymond Carver's short stories to one-act plays (presently waiting for permission rights from the Carver estate), each about couples, I have a new appreciation of how difficult it is for a playwright to incorporate all the elements of a great play, the humor, the tragedy, doing it all with dialog, no descriptive narrative, making the characters real, having a story the audience will hang onto until the end. Margulies' play is a master class in playwriting, justifiably receiving the 2000 Pulitzer Prize in Drama.

And I can more clearly see the incredible confluence that must happen to create great theater, the writing, the directing, the staging, the acting. It is a creative act of teamwork. Arts such as painting and literature are solitary journeys into the soul. Dramaworks knows how to bring all the necessary elements together in their productions, always mindful of its basic mission statement "theatre to think about."