Subtle Donald Margulies: Even when he tackles an old familiar tale, you can count on him to tell it differently. Dinner With Friends is the first Margulies play to arrive here as a strictly commercial venture, and it deals with commercial drama’s pet topic, marital breakup via adultery. But you can leave the conventional expectations at home with the Bette Davis cassettes. Even at the end, where Margulies arranges his ironies a little too tidily, they aren’t the usual ironies, and some of his omissions are as striking as the points he emphasizes in drawing what’s almost too complex to be called his moral.
Marriage, though still a popular institution, has long since ceased being sacrosanct. Margulies’s four characters, ’50s kids who hit their young-adult peak in the Reagan years, actually grew up in a time when most adult Americans were divorced; their marriages were part of the pendulum’s neocon backswing. Outside of a brief but significant how-they-met flashback, the action takes place in the present, in countrified suburban Connecticut. Both couples have been married over 10 years; each has two kids. Gabe and Karen, whose shared interest in gourmet matters has produced a steady income from food writing as well as a comfy, bustling domesticity, are the dinner-givers. When Beth the painter shows up without Tom the lawyer (“called to Washington again”), all seems well-till she breaks down in tears over the dessert. Yes, there’s another woman; Tom accuses Beth of blah blah, and Beth blames Tom for blah blah, and what’ll we tell the kids?
But this is only scene one, which is shortly revealed to be almost a prank on Margulies’s part, to lull us into expecting the obvious so that the outrageous will come as a relief. Some-but not all-of Beth’s information turns out to be misinformation, which the suspicious might even call disinformation. The same can be said for Tom’s counter-arguments when they arrive. The crack in their marriage soon reveals an ominous fault line running under Gabe and Karen’s-or does it? And since the latter pair brought Tom and Beth together, how much of the result is their fault? For a double-whammy twist, the child most noticeably upset by the split is Gabe and Karen’s son, while Tom and Beth find their sex lives reenergized by it, in ways poised on the previously unsuspected interface of Strindberg and sitcom.
This is only a partial survey of the expectations Margulies toys with. Unlike more ordinary writhes through this hand-wringing genre, his play actually raises, by implication, the big, shadowy questions that hang over it: Why get married in the first place? Why stay married? How are we meant to live? No easy answers are supplied; Margulies’s knockout punch is a happy ending guaranteed to leave you unnerved. Its neat balance, however, conceals two fairly big lapses in the play’s vision. Though most American households are now double-income, the wives here have no separate existence: Karen seems to function only as Gabe’s in-house editor, while Beth’s painting is mere busywork that she eventually junks. Surely, feminist awareness has had more effect even among these cozy couples. Similarly, we get only a vague sense of the children’s reaction, and of how much gratification this quartet does or doesn’t derive from its offspring. Since we know who suffers most in a divorce, something important’s been snipped out of the picture.
Not that its absence is noticeable, with all the elements in Daniel Sullivan’s production coming together to form one of those smooth, lucid events that, like the script, seduces you with its comfortable look so that the deeper disquiet can creep up unnoticed. The sets (Neil Patel) and costumes (Jess Goldstein) are dressily apt, though you hardly have time to study them with four actors who inhabit their roles so fully. Julie White’s trajectory, as Beth, from distraught wreck to fulfilled glamour girl is the evening’s most visible achievement, but Lisa Emery’s ability to push aside the glamour she inevitably carries with her, and play the feelings deep beneath it, probably requires more technical skill. Matthew Arkin’s haplessness as Gabe makes a perfect fulcrum for this emotional seesaw, though Sullivan has rigged the debate over whose side to take by casting Kevin Kilner, with whom the whole audience instantly falls in love, as the peccant Tom. For a reality check, try imagining some really vicious guy, like Rudy Giuliani, in the role.
Aspects of marital morality are also discussed, sort of, in N. Richard Nash’s 1954 comedy The Rainmaker. The scene is a farm in the Plains states, during the dust-bowl ’30s, where Lizzie Curry keeps house for her father and two brothers, and frets about becoming an old maid. She’d marry File, the new deputy sheriff, but divorce has hurt his pride too badly for him to trust women again. Into their drought-ridden lives drifts Starbuck, a handsome, sharp-eyed con man who says he can make rain; anyone who knows Broadway’s rules of playwriting knows he’s really there to make Lizzie. This gets File riled up enough to declare his love, at which point, the weather being cooperative on the popular stage, it rains, proving that Starbuck’s fakery was, if not real, at least worth a $5.40 top. (New York has changed since 1954.)
Parts of Nash’s play are strong and effective as realism, others fairly amusing folk-hokum. The two blend less easily than they might because a second layer of hokum, of a slicker Broadway kind, often gets in the way: Its constant straining for effect plays hob with the realism, and its self-righteous sanctimony about male-female relations could kill a sick heifer faster than drought. Luckily, the likable cast of Scott Ellis’s revival has the skill to play past these arid spots. John Bedford Lloyd is fearsome as the embittered elder son, Jerry Hardin makes old Curry’s pieties seem both human and humane, and Randle Mell gives File a staunch, striking sourness. If Woody Harrelson doesn’t exactly probe Starbuck’s depths, he invests the role with a free-range physicality and grinning charm that make him as welcome on stage as on celluloid. Jayne Atkinson, opposite him, makes an unexpected triumph. In other roles her feelings have often seemed to be locked away under her rigid technique; as Lizzie, she lets the two engage, and the result is-well, acting: a public representation of inner conflict that rings true at every point. Complex and complete, her Lizzie fascinates whether she’s making love, conversation, or dinner.
The unlucky exception to this brave array is the normally excellent David Aaron Baker, as the younger Curry son, whom Ellis has directed to convey adolescent eagerness with a degree of frenzy that needs Ritalin the way Nebraska needs rain. Ellis’s other big lapse is the staging of Starbuck’s “Melisande” speech: He keeps Harrelson busy leaping all over, miming out the surface of the story, oblivious to Lizzie, whom he should be trying to seduce. Like many aspects of The Rainmaker, this action’s clearer in its musical version, Jones and Schmidt’s 110 in the Shade. You’d think Ellis, who staged its last major revival, would know.