I wish I understood why Dinner with Friends won a Pulitzer Prize for drama shortly after it premiered back in 1998. Sure, it’s skillfully constructed and easy to relate to (that is, if you’ve ever been in an upper-middle-class marriage surrounded by cherubic children and matching patio furniture). But don’t the best dramas out there give us something more mysterious than competence, something riskier than readily identifiable roles?
These questions were on my mind as I watched the Roundabout Theatre’s new revival of Donald Margulies’s prize-winner, crisply staged by Pam MacKinnon and featuring an excellent cast. The plot follows the fates of two couples, both post-children and just beginning to founder on the shoals of middle age. Karen (Marin Hinkle) and Gabe (Jeremy Shamos) seem to have it together: food-writing careers, “working” vacations where they search the globe for the most authentic spice combinations. Their table settings match, their marinades are for the books. Beth (Heather Burns) and Tom (Darren Pettie), meanwhile, are a mess, and getting messier. He cheated, and — Beth tearfully confesses over a top-notch Italian dinner at Gabe and Karen’s house — is leaving her for the other woman.
Margulies’s play is at its best when his characters behave selfishly, and in less-than-expected ways: Gabe and Karen find it harder to let go of their friends’ marriage than their friends do. They whine, grumble, and take things personally (after all, it’s their fault Beth and Tom met in the first place, when the two were both guests at Gabe and Karen’s summer house on Martha’s Vineyard). Margulies’s point — that relationships take on strange significances and matter to more than just the people involved — is intelligent and well-observed.
Beyond this, though, the play becomes increasingly formulaic. As the scenes meander back and forth in time, from Beth and Tom’s first beachside encounter to the dissolution of their marriage and beyond, each couple begins to feel less like a pair of people and more like a mathematical equation. Begin with Couple One and insert Problem A; proceed to Couple Two and insert Problem B. One pair breaks up, one stays together. Each character possesses just enough traits to be legible as a type: Karen is hyper-organized, Beth is artsy. It’s as if Margulies didn’t want to tax his audiences with a quirk we couldn’t keep track of from the moment the curtain rises to the moment the curtain falls. Hinkle is excellent in the role of the tightly wound Karen, and Shamos is particularly sensitive as Gabe. In spite of these strong performances, though, not one of the characters actually comes off like a person.
The results feel as methodically symmetrical as the expensive-looking set pieces that glide on and offstage in the Roundabout’s production. Allen Moyer has done a nice job of creating the wealthy suburban interiors Margulies described: Pottery Barn fabrics, a hint of charming disarray. In a nice touch, an impressionistic painting of Beth’s forms a massive backdrop to an early scene, then appears later, hanging on a bedroom wall and shrunk to its actual size — suggesting, perhaps, the perspective we gain when not consumed by passion. What kind of perspective has 15 years given us on this play, though? To me, it seemed to have shrunk to its actual, not-so-significant size.