Marriage as an Entree

Dinner With Friends offers a tantalizing array of the flavors of human relationships.

Longtime married couples should attend the Denver Center Theatre Company's Dinner With Friends, and so should young people in love. It's a great date play. Not in the sense that it arouses desire or presents an idealized view of love, but because the playwright muses so knowingly on the topic of marriage, the substitute families formed by married couples, the ultimate mysteriousness of human relationships. Also, it's bright, clever, topical and a lot of fun.

As the play begins, Karen and Gabe are entertaining their friend Beth, whose husband, Tom, is apparently away on a business trip. They're serving her grilled lamb with rosemary and pumpkin risotto and rhapsodizing about a fabled eighty-something-year-old cook they've just visited in Italy. In the glib food-porno talk with which we've become increasingly familiar, they search for words to describe the cook's home-canned tomatoes, finally coming up with "buttery." They explain how she mashes cloves of garlic for sauce with a callused thumb. They are foodies par excellence, a husband-and-wife team writing for a glossy food magazine (perhaps Saveur, which we see Karen reading in the final scene) -- though it's hard to conceive of a food-writing job that would support the lifestyle illustrated here. The children of both couples are in another room watching TV; periodically, their voices interrupt the flow of talk. It's the kind of scene -- slightly deeper and more edgy than your average sitcom -- that evokes smiles of recognition from the audience. Though Karen and Gabe are over the top, the foodie angle isn't played entirely for satire; playwright Donald Margulies is clearly aware of the importance of shared meals and all the ways in which food represents warmth, companionship and nourishment.

Through the flow of talk, Beth seems distracted. Finally, she begins to weep and tells her friends that Tom is not on a business trip. He has left her for a younger, sexier woman. The responses of Gabe and Karen break along gender lines. Once Beth has left, Karen rages at Tom's perfidy. Gabe has reservations; he wants more information before passing judgment. She accuses him of being inexpressive and unsupportive. The fault lines in their own marriage begin to show.

John Hutton, Caitlin O'Connell, Mark Rubald and Annette Helde in Dinner With Friends.
John Hutton, Caitlin O'Connell, Mark Rubald and Annette Helde in Dinner With Friends.

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Through December 8, 303-893-4100 or denvercenter.org
Ricketson Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 14th and Curtis streets

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So far, Dinner With Friends feels a bit like "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" But Margulies, who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for this play, has other tricks up his sleeve. There's too much ambiguity, and the feelings are too strong to make for easy classification. "I hope you never know the loneliness I've known," Tom says to Gabe when -- having eaten the leftovers from the dinner Karen and Gabe shared earlier with his wife -- he finally has a chance to tell his side of the story.

You don't get one of those neat little "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" tie-ups, either. Although the audience is privy to all kinds of passionate and self-revelatory talk, it's impossible to figure out whom to side with. Is Beth really cold, self-absorbed and playing at being an artist to evade life's responsibilities, as Tom alleges? Is Tom just emotionally immature? And what about Karen and Gabe? Are they as happy as they purport to be? At one point, Tom describes his sex-filled, athletic life with his new love, and Gabe responds with a diatribe on the virtues of marriage and fidelity. Is he sincere, or is he jealous? Karen, too, is tight-lipped when Beth reveals that she has a new love. Why? Because she's genuinely disapproving? Because, as Beth suggests, she needs Beth's incompetence and unhappiness as a foil for her own perfectionism? Or is it just remotely possible that she has feelings for Tom herself? There's real love here, within the individual marriages and between the two couples. But when Beth and Tom break up, Karen and Gabe -- who, like most married couples, have used their best friends' marriage as a kind of template and reflection of their own -- fight a panicky sense that perhaps they've never known their friends. And if that's so, then, just possibly, they also don't understand themselves or each other.

The older couples in the audience could probably tell the younger ones that marriage is not a steady state. Threats come not only from outside loves or changed circumstances, but from time itself, as sexy young people become middle-aged, deeply held beliefs mutate and priorities shift. Karen and Gabe's yearning for the simpler life represented by an ancient Italian woman cooking for her family takes on new resonance in this context.

There are a couple of serious omissions in the script: At no point does anyone worry about or even mention what effects Tom and Beth's separation has on their children. And though I've nothing against affluent yuppies per se, it's a little off-putting to realize that these people are so rich that no one even needs to discuss the financial consequences of divorce.

The Ricketson Theatre, once an intimate little movie house, is the perfect venue for Dinner With Friends, and the Denver Center's production is first-rate. The sets are inviting and carefully detailed, and the lighting -- particularly the patterns cast during set changes - is charming and warm. Bruce Sevy directs with a sure hand, though the scene where Gabe and Tom meet in a bar is a little awkward. It's talky as scripted, and the men have been directed to simply stand and orate at each other. Given the naturalism of the play, a little stage business might have helped. All of the performances are solid. Annette Helde's Karen is so brittle and high-strung that she occasionally sets the viewer's teeth on edge, but this appears to be the actress's intention. Mark Rubald is a fine, good-hearted and ambivalent Gabe. John Hutton gives us a volatile Tom, who compensates for any sense of vulnerability he may feel by getting louder and more emphatic. Caitlin O'Connell's complex, teasing and seductive performance as Beth is one of the most interesting elements in the production: Sometimes the character seems irritating, slow and whiny, and you think all of Tom's complaints about her are valid; at other moments, she charms entirely.

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