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Decoupling

A Marriage Disintegrates Over One Uncomfortable Evening Meal

WEDDING THRASHERS: Sure, Mark Steckbeck and Laura Gifford look cozy now . . .

By John Barry | Posted 2/1/2006

Dinner With Friends

By Donald Margulies

Through Feb. 19 at Fells Point Corner Theatre

The program notes to Donald Margulies’ Dinner With Friends open to the beat of statistics. In 2001, the average time from divorce to marriage was eight years; in 2003, there were 3.8 marriages for every 7.5 divorces; 76 percent of men who married in 1955-’59 stayed married for at least 20 years; 58 percent of men who married in 1975-’79 stayed married for that long. And, yes, Google “prenuptial agreement” and find more than 400,000 entries.

A competently written play highlighting these statistics connects with audience members. Aside from a few quirks, Friends is populated by upper-middle-class everymen. With some clever dialogue and little bit of craftsmanship, about, say, 53 percent of all married couples can leave the theater recognizing the agonies of their own lives being played out before them onstage. The other 47 percent or so leave knowing they have something to look forward to—which may explain this play’s success: After an off-Broadway run, Friends won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize in drama and was adapted to a TV movie in 2001.

After 10 years or so of pure torture, a marriage is on the rocks: What’s the point? It’s a question that the entire quartet of characters in Friends spends most of the play asking themselves. Couple number one, Gabe (Mark Steckbeck) and Karen (Laura Gifford), are two food-obsessed professional writers in their late 30s whose marriage is becalmed but in no immediate danger. Their sex life has seen better days, but their risotto is as good as it gets.

Their best friends, Tom (Vic Cheswick) and Beth (Beverly Shannon), are married with children. Gabe is a lawyer, sick of his job, and Beth is a somewhat ditzy artist, whose work is piling up in the basement. Tom travels often, Beth stays home with the kids and paints. She won’t let him touch her in bed, and he keeps dissing her art. In the opening scene, Beth announces to Karen and Gabe that her husband has started sleeping with a stewardess. Tom insists that she has it all wrong; actually, he’s been sleeping with a travel agent.

Margulies isn’t all that interested in taking this plot in any direction you don’t expect it to go. He is interested in looking at this problem from all possible angles: the separation itself, the loneliness, the pettiness, the sexual issues, the repercussions. Scenes also feel apportioned under the equal-time law: You don’t hear the jilted wife’s point of view without listening to the long-suffering husband describing his side of the story.

Finally, and most importantly, Margulies looks at the separation through the anxious eyes of Gabe and Karen, along with its attendant effects. First, it destroys the couples’ friendship. It also leaves what they’re going to do on weekends open, now that they have no one to go to the beach with.

Margulies tags most of the bases in this two-act play—anyone who’s watched a friend’s marriage fall apart can vouch for that. When he tries to tie the whole thing together, though, the play gets a little tiresome. Separation is a fait accompli by the first scene and, despite the occasional spark, love is a thing of the past. That leaves Gabe and Karen with nothing left to do but shake their heads, cluck their tongues, and find uneasy vindication in their friends’ separation.

Don’t take this criticism the wrong way; the play moves quickly, and despite the lugubrious tone, Margulies writes sharp dialogue and, thanks to a flashback scene, is also able to conjure up a vision of the marriage before it fell to pieces. But then the finger wagging begins, the platitudes about commitment, and couples therapy. It’s not that plays shouldn’t deal with topical subjects, but here the discussion topics overwhelm the onstage drama.

To give this somewhat bland scenario a little movement, the characters have to step in, and the cast does that with mixed success. The opening scene is decidedly rocky, with actors tripping over one another’s lines at 78 rpm; as the individual crises start to play themselves out, the rhythm gets much smoother.

Cheswick brings refreshing confidence to his innately needy Tom, but even as Tom sinks into his midlife crisis, Cheswick does it with an energy that explains his infidelity. Shannon brings a comic sensibility to Tom’s ditzy, artistically inclined wife, although the shallowness of her role is a little hard for her to overcome.

As Gabe and Karen, though, Steckbeck and Gifford don’t shift gears much in the play. It’s not really their fault. Although it’s easy to empathize with them, they have little to do but discuss the lives of the other characters. If anything, you leave Dinner With Friends feeling that they need to get a life of their own—whether they will or not is anyone’s guess.

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