By Eric Marchese
July 26, 2017 at 12:31 pm
When outwardly happy couples split up, it can be just as disruptive to those around them – perhaps even more so.
That's "Dinner With Friends" in a nutshell. Donald Margulies' 1998 drama may not be considered as dynamic as his "Brooklyn Boy" or "Collected Stories," but its subject is more relatable to most people.
After its 1998 world premiere at Humana Festival, the play's first major revised production was at South Coast Repertory later that year. Now, Costa Mesa Playhouse's revival brings "Dinner" back to Costa Mesa nearly 20 years later.
Michael Serna's casting, direction and set design make all the difference at CMP, and even if you've seen "Dinner" elsewhere, you're still likely to find many a new wrinkle in this affecting, well-acted version.
While hosting best friend Beth (Jordana Oberman) for dinner, married foodies Karen (Michelle D. Pedersen) and Gabe (Peter Hilton) are shocked to learn that she and husband Tom (Angel Correa) have separated.
When Tom drops by the house that night to pick up some things, he learns that Gabe and Karen have now heard only Beth's side of the breakup – so he makes a beeline for their home in an effort to balance their take.
"Dinner" is an anatomy of a divorce and its effects not just on the couple separating, but on everyone in their orbit: The splitting up of their two closest friends forces Gabe and Karen to examine their own marriage and their lives together.
Margulies expertly delivers a tale of two couples: He depicts Karen and Gabe as almost impossibly perfect – successful in complementary professions, compatible romantically, and with two happy, well-adjusted children. Tom and Beth's relationship is one of volatile energy and instability, their breakup riddled with vicious recriminations.
Since Tom introduces chaos into the two couples' heretofore stable universe, we at first view Tom as having wronged Beth – but as the play examines the foursome's shifting feelings, we realize that simplistic labels don't apply.
Steeped in the nuances of authentic speech, Margulies' trenchant script packs a lot into one evening. It's witty but never facile, realistic but not a weighty slog, and profound even while studded with sparkling one-liners.
A judgmental perfectionist with nothing but scorn for Tom, Pedersen's Karen is more complex, analytical and confrontational than Gabe. Hilton shows Gabe's easygoing tolerance, confusion and helplessness. His Gabe is the story's babe in the woods, a nice guy disturbed by the stunning turn of events.
In the early scenes, Correa shrewdly plays Tom's insecurity as comical. In the revealing flashback scene, Correa shows the younger Tom as marked by relaxed self-confidence and an offhand sense of humor. He's more enthusiastic and less tense than the Tom we first see, qualities that resurface as Tom begins to rebuild his life.
Showing the widest emotional range of all, Oberman gives us three distinctive versions of Beth. In the opening scenes, she modulates Beth's sadness and despair with comedically nasty aggression toward Tom.
Oberman paints younger Beth as a spacey flower child, more fun-loving and frivolous than we've seen and clearly less tense and guarded. Months after the divorce, Beth is more forceful, bold and well-adjusted than ever before.
Serna and company make the key flashback scene pivotal: The quartet is more youthful and playful, their more mature but also more entrenched traits as yet unformed. Acting (and appearing) considerably younger, Correa and Oberman especially show how drastically Tom and Beth have changed in just a handful of years.
Accustomed to the stability of their prosaic existence, Gabe and Karen are forced to examine a marriage they fear has calcified. Margulies leaves open-ended the question of whether this seemingly perfect couple can find the ideal balance between the joyful spontaneity they've lost and the duties of wedlock that have worn them down.
'Dinner With Friends'
When: Through Aug. 13. 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays
Where: Costa Mesa Playhouse, 661 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa
Tickets: $20 ($18 seniors/students)
Length: 2 hours, 25 minutes
Suitability: Adults and teens (for language and content)
Info: 949-650-5269, costamesaplayhouse.com
Information: (949) 650-5269 or http://www.costamesaplayhouse.com