Dinner With Friends

Local Arts Reviews

Dinner With Friends: Delicious

State Theater,

through June 9

Running Time: 2 hrs, 15 min

Oh, the joys of food. If you're so inclined, you can make a lifelong journey out of learning the intricacies of spices, herbs, and non-stick sauté pans. You can travel the world savoring a never-ending kaleidoscope of flavors from myriad cultures. And best of all, when you have friends over for dinner and they skirt an uncomfortable topic, you can always just talk about the food.

Donald Margulies' play Dinner With Friends is about both the resilience and the fragility of friendship and love, and food provides a fitting backdrop for much of this discussion. The comfort, animal pleasure, and even tedium involved in the preparation and consumption of edibles provide an appropriate metaphor for the exploration of these same elements in human relationship. The State Theater Company production of Dinner With Friends brings into crystalline focus the many facets of friendship and love Margulies has exposed in his Pulitzer-winning script and does so with crisp timing, finely blended humor and moments of genuine honesty.

Dinner With Friends is not action-packed; most of the show is made up of complex conversations between a few characters. While this could have made for a static evening, director Scott Kanoff generally manages to maintain tension and interest through tight verbal timing and a firm grasp on the reins of each scene's dynamic energy. Kanoff orchestrates the characters' voices into duets, trios, and quartets of overlapping rhythms and intensity, giving the dialogue a sense of authenticity and urgency. There were two moments in which I felt myself drifting from the action; however, both may have had to do with the character holding forth at the time: Tom, whose shallow, cliché-jammed B.S. was sometimes (perhaps intentionally) difficult to stay with.

Tom's banality notwithstanding, as the human drama of Dinner With Friends unfolds you can almost see the characters ripen from flat simple caricatures to round, delicious, complex beings. Karen, played with depth and intricacy by Jana Brockman Seitz, evolves from a cool Martha Stewart-esque stereotype to a loving, steadfast woman with a deep capacity to be hurt. In Katherine Catmull's vulnerable Beth, we see a woman we think we know -- artsy, ditzy, often in crisis -- but we stumble upon her secrets and are left to wonder about her true nature. Even Tom (expertly performed by David Stokey), who starts the play as the simple villain, eventually reveals himself as a lonely, frightened, aging man. The gem of the production, however, is Ron Berry's outstanding portrayal of Gabe. At the beginning of the play, Gabe seems cartoonish, hiding behind humor and silence in the face of his friends' crisis. As scenes pass, the layers of Gabe's personality peel back until even silence cannot mask his confusion and bewilderment at the questions his friends' personal meltdown raise in him. The beauty of Berry's Gabe is his sincere, earnest, almost innocent struggle to understand the harrowing events occurring around him. The theatrical honesty with which he portrays Gabe, along with his sense of comedic timing, makes Berry a special treat to watch.

The sets in this production seem to have been designed for the smoothest possible scene changes; entire room settings rotate almost like, as the young man sitting in front of me said, a "big Lazy Susan." The sets themselves are simple enough to seem uncluttered and to keep the action focused, but detailed enough to evoke the Crate-&-Barrel comfort so central to the domestic themes in the piece. There is food in nearly every scene, handled surprisingly easily and naturally by all the actors; after watching the characters eat and talk about food for two hours, I left the play hungry. But my hunger for a fulfilling theatrical experience was thoroughly satisfied.

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Dinner with Friends, State Theater Company, Scott Kanoff, Jana Brockman Seitz, Katherine Catmull, David Stokey, Ron Berry

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