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Bob Goepfert Reviews "Dinner With Friends"

"Dinner With Friends," playing at Curtain Call Theatre in Latham through May 9, is a richly textured play filled with insights on human nature. It also has wise observations on the complicated dynamic of relationships.

The play centers about the end of a 12 year marriage, but it is really about how that act affects relationships and friendships.   It is about how a community is impacted by all its members.

It is a work that makes you wonder how much anyone knows about anyone else.  That question is elevated exponentially when couples are involved. In other words, this is a play that is certain to engage you in conversation long after the curtain falls.

One night while having dinner with friends Beth reveals to her best friends, Gabe and Karen, that her husband Tom revealed to her he has been cheating on her and he's filed for a divorce.   The friends, who introduced the couple years ago, are stunned that what seemed a secure and tranquil marriage has been so troubled.

As Tom and Beth forge new lives, their friends are forced to take sides and pass judgments.  Though well-meaning, Gabe and Karen's advice and observations seem to stem from insecurity.  In the same way, expressions of joyful independence by Tom and Beth appear selfish and self-serving.   Eventually, Gabe and Karen must confront the fact that issues of familiarity and boredom are problems that affect all long-term relationships.  Both couples learn that taking a relationship for granted is as dangerous as it is inevitable.

One of the joys of the play (which is not filled with joyous moments) is that playwright Donald Margulies does not equate disaffection with dissolution.    Indeed, one of the finest moments in the production is when Gabe (David Robert Orr) explains to Tom the nature of love and the work it takes to survive in a relationship.  Orr is terrific as he describes the satisfaction that comes when a couple moves from a passion-based relationship to a mature state of love.  It a lovely, wise moment that makes you wonder why the men were ever best friends.

There is a similar moment between the women which raises the same question. In this scene Karen (played with a secure consistency by Pamela O'Conner) is shocked when Beth reveals the sham that anchored their friendship.  She is also shaken when she realizes Beth's accusations that Karen' friendship was dependant on Beth being fragile might be true.

Those moments illustrate one of the flaws in this production.  It is never made clear why the two couples are best friends.   Colleen Lovett as Beth and Tony Pallone are Tom are both extremely effective in creating self-centered individuals.  It is also clear they should not be together.  A flashback that shows their first meeting suggests they were a bad match from the start.

What is missing is a connection between Beth and Tom that makes us want to care about them individually or as a couple. Indeed a scene in the first act that has a fight between them lead to a sexual encounter is awkward and depreciates them as individuals for several reasons.  Not the least of which is that the actors fail to show the submerged passion that exists between them.

Playing the divorced couple only as shallow and self-absorbed diminishes some subtleties within the play, but it does not affect the dilemma that exists for Gabe and Karen, who seem more like older relatives than they do same-age friends.   They become the heart of the play and it is their struggle to understand why they stay together that makes the work such a mature piece of art.

There are a lot of minor production problems that distract from rather than diminish the power of the play.  The set is meager and costumes are not character driven.  The first act staging is stiff and it is not until the second act that director David Braucher finds the true pace and mood of the work.

When that happens "Dinner With Friends" becomes a riveting experience that is touching, smart and insightful.  In other words, it becomes tender and truthful theater.

Bob Goepfert is the arts editor for the Troy Record.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.