Dinner with FriendsPosted: February 28, 2014
I love the playwright Donald Margulies. I love his dialogue, his style of writing, his sense of humor, and what he has to say about relationships, marriage, and friendship. His plays consistently hit me in the gut and make me think (Dinner with Friends, Time Stands Still, Collected Stories). But this production of Dinner with Friends made the material feel stagnant. I was very excited to see it and took my dad for his birthday, but it simply didn’t sit right with either of us.
The play follows two married couples and the changes that occur within their friendship when one of the couples announces they’re getting a divorce. I think it was primarily the direction that I didn’t see eye to eye with, but occasionally it may have been the acting as well. I typically very much enjoy Pam McKinnon’s directing (Clybourne Park, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), but this fell flat for me. Not all of it by any means! I don’t want to give the impression that the production is bad. Certain parts I was very much involved in and couldn’t tear my eyes away, but then on a dime, I’d fall out of it. And as my dad pointed out, the humor wasn’t landing as much as it typically does in a Margulies play. Yes, it may be a tragic story, but there is, more often than not, comedy found within the tragedy.
Margulies is all about the scene work. It’s about the conversation, the witty, often biting, back-and-forth between characters. It’s day after day of conversation after conversation, and I eat it up. There is a major sense of realism with his writing, meaning when something feels out of place or false I’m taken out of it. If there is random blocking or awkward staging, if we stray from the “reality” for even a moment, I’m gone and have to work my way back. Sometimes it’s an odd delivery of a line or facing out instead of directing one’s words TO the other character. The second scene, for example, was problematic (as Charles Isherwood also states in the Times). The couple getting a divorce is having a very tense conversation that snowballs quickly into an intense argument. They are standing on opposite ends of the stage, cheating out, and talking at each other. Instead of feeling their pain, I was just thinking about how obviously they were cheating out. Quite often the blocking (or lack thereof) didn’t serve the actors. Even in the top of Act II when we open on a flashback 12 years earlier, the new set doesn’t do anything to help the scene. The actors are practically stuck in a line with limited space to move and play.
Jeremy Shamos, though. Man, is he good. This isn’t news (Clybourne Park, The Assembled Parties), but honestly, I could watch him do the whole play by himself. In the last scene, although it doesn’t quite redeem some of the weaker parts of the show, he instantly draws you in – right along with what his character is going through. His work is always so natural and effortless. The moments we get to spend with him bring the sad humor, depth, and punch in the gut I’m looking for when I’m in the mood for some Margulies.
Dinner with Friends
Written by Donald Margulies, Directed by Pam McKinnon
The Laura Pels Theatre through April 13th
Photo Credit: Jeremy Daniel
Pictured: Marin Hinkle and Jeremy Shamos