On Commitment

Thoughtful casting and fine writing lead Beowulf's 'Dinner With Friends' to success

Donald Margulies won a Pulitzer for his play Dinner With Friends, but that doesn't mean it's either an epic or a spectacle in the tradition of such winning plays as August: Osage County, Rent, Angels in America: Millennium Approaches or The Kentucky Cycle. It's a smaller, tighter work more in the manner of Doubt, Proof and Wit.

Indeed, at first glance, the subject of Dinner With Friends seems mundane: how four people are affected by divorce. What makes Margulies' comedy/drama Pulitzer-worthy is its slightly unusual angle: This is not so much an account of how relationships fall apart as a consideration of how they might hold together.

Beowulf Alley Theatre Company has just opened a strong production of Dinner With Friends, deftly directed by Susan Arnold.

The lights come up in the dining room of Gabe and Karen as they're trying to entertain their longtime friend Beth with an exquisite meal and too much detail about their recent culinary trip to Italy. But Beth has something on her mind other than avoiding the verbal slideshow, and finally blurts it out: Her husband, Tom, is leaving her for another woman.

Nobody knows quite how to deal with this--not Beth, and not Gabe and Karen. Shocked, they can't do much more than pry a few details out of Beth and assure her that she and Tom are their closest friends. And then they stare at each other across the table, frozen in the headlights of oncoming danger.

Gabe and Karen introduced Beth and Tom to each other a dozen years before. Both marriages have seemed placid and conventional, but if Beth and Tom can split without warning, how fragile might Gabe and Karen's own complacent marriage be? Besides which, there's the usual quandary when a couple sees friends get divorced: Which friend will they get custody of? Will they be able to retain them both as friends, or will they lose them both?

Tom, who was unable to attend the dinner, is distraught when he learns that Gabe and Karen have gotten only Beth's side of the story. And, as the play progresses, it's clear that Tom has valid complaints of his own. Identifying the victim here is no easy task. Also, what role might Gabe and Karen have played in the marriage's demise? After all, we see in a flashback that they're the people who brought the two together in the first place, and it was clear then that Beth and Tom most certainly were not made for each other.

Through the play, Margulies tests the bonds within the couples, between the couples, between the women, between the men. The success of a production depends on casting; director Arnold made an unusual choice or two, but it all turned out for the best.

As Margulies writes him, Tom would seem to be some sort of middle-aged stud-manqué, yet at Beowulf Alley, he is portrayed by Rick Shipman, more roly-poly and cuddly than studly. As Shipman plays him, Tom is a man whose success with women lies mainly in the past; marriage has made him soft, and he yearns for firmness--of body, of character, of intent.

Last year, I heard that Arnold was having trouble casting the role of Gabe; she considered several other strong actors before settling on Art Almquist, who turns out to be a fine choice for a couple of reasons. First, he shares with Shipman a certain boyishness that makes it impossible for them to represent men as entirely selfish villains. Second, he has a comfortable, offhand rapport with Carrie Hill, who plays Karen with the sternness and backbone the male characters lack. Almquist and Hill are thoroughly convincing as a longtime couple casually in sync, whether recounting their trip in counterpoint or simply making a bed together.

Then there's Rhonda Hallquist as Beth, undergoing the deepest transformations over the course of the play, from distraught in the opening scene, to ditzy in the flashback, to radiant in the end; in her last scene, she somehow looks younger. It's called acting, not makeup.

If anything is missing from the performances, it's the last bittersweet measure of regret. Hill handles this very well at play's end, and Almquist has a nice little speech about passing time and a growing awareness of mortality, but otherwise, the balance tilts toward the comedy rather than the drama.

Scenically, Dinner With Friends is more ambitious than Beowulf Alley's norm, and Joel Charles has come through with fine sets, including a pair of paintings (presumably by Bill Galbreath, credited with "special scenic artistry") that look like a cross between Van Gogh and Anselm Kiefer--a perfect manifestation of what the dialogue describes as Beth's "neo-psychotic" art style.

Before the play begins, the usual admonition to turn off cell phones and pagers includes a new directive: No texting during the performance. I understand that rampant text-messaging nearly disrupted a performance at another theater recently. Come on, people: Sit down, shut up and pay attention. That's the least you should do, whether your commitment is to an evening in the theater, or a lifetime in marriage.

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