Marriage as an Entree
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.
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.
Though it's now closed, Tir Ná nÓg Theatre Company's production of Conor McPherson's The Weir reveals a group worth watching. The Weir is a low-key play, full of talk, with very little action: Four men in a pub that represents a beacon in the lonely, rural part of Ireland where they live,exchange banter and swap ghost stories to impress a visiting woman from Dublin. The script calls for an intimate environment, and Tir Ná nÓg Theatre wisely chose to stage it at the Celtic Tavern in downtown Denver. Though the tavern is far bigger and shinier than the average Irish pub (and somebody really ought to tell the kitchen what a Welsh rarebit tastes like), the company transformed a section of it into what felt like the real thing, importing a few bits of scenery and ingeniously deploying what was already present.
On the night we attended, it took a while for things to gel. This is a play that demands deep authority in performance. Though most of the actors had mustered credible Irish accents, a couple of them spoke as if they weren't really thinking the words they were saying. And in general, McPherson's language took some getting used to. For a while we just sat there while a kind of crazy syllable salad interspersed with loud "ha ha ha"s whizzed by our ears. But slowly things changed. The playwright began pulling his thematic threads together, the actors found their feet, and the whole evening came into focus.
The ghost stories began as trivial and slightly amusing, but then the tone darkened. There was human depravity in the anecdote Jim told the group. And when Valerie, the woman from Dublin, finally spoke, her story tore at the heart. Finally, there was Jack's moment of self-revelation, and we began to realize that real horror doesn't lie in the supernatural, but in the bitterness of being alone and the emptiness of a life not lived: "We'll all be ghosts soon enough," he said.
Wade P. Wood brought a great deal of humor and energy to the annoying, loud-mouthed Finbar, though he sometimes created an almost overwhelming wash of sound in which all sense and feeling were lost. Darrin Ray, who played Jim, has talent and presence, but needed to tone down his performance. By contrast, Russell Orr underplayed Jack, and for the most part it worked, providing a contrast to the more excitable performances of the others. Jillann Tafel was a little too controlled as Valerie, though she came into her own when she told her story. Patrick M. Balai, who is also the company's artistic director, played bartender Brendan with matter-of-fact kindness and a good humor that anchored the evening.
My companion, who had seen the play in London, whispered to me that she preferred the Tir Ná nÓg production. I thought I could tell why. McPherson's play is about loneliness, but also about the obverse -- companion- ship -- and these actors brought a redemptive warmth to the work that would be unlikely in a larger, more ambitious production. Keep your eye out for Tir Ná nÓg Theatre's next manifestation.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Denver art and theater scene.