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‘Dinner with Friends’ is enjoyable vanilla story

By John Angell Grant Special to the Daily Planet
Saturday November 18, 2000

Berkeley Repertory Theater opened a strong production Wednesday of Donald Margulies’ odd and disturbing, and sometimes annoying, 2000 Pulitzer Prize winning play “Dinner with Friends.” 

“Dinner” focuses on four mid-life upper middle class suburban Connecticut friends – two married couples – who have known each other for many years. 

The friends’ world is thrown off kilter when it is revealed that one of the men has begun an affair, and that he and his wife plan to divorce. 

The play moves through seven scenes, running forward and backward in time, to examine the circumstances around this shocking turn of events. In the aftermath of the divorce, the shared lives of these two couples – who vacation together, raise kids together and weekend together – lose their structure and foundation. 

When all the play’s issues are boiled down, “Dinner with Friends” is ultimately about the conflicts in mid-life between the comforts and inertia of a conjugal pairing vs. the lure, excitement, romance and sex of a more scintillating new relationship. 

The divorcing husband and wife who venture out into new relationships become reawakened in their lives – enthused, youthful, stimulated and fulfilled – to the anxious uncertainty of their friends watching this transformation. 

The play’s big negative is the banality of these people. Largely, all four are nondescript vanilla characters, without much in the way of distinguishing characteristics. 

Initially, they come off as preposterous phonies – whining narcissistic yuppies who get together at dinner and brag about food recipes because they basically have nothing else to say. 

They seem like a quartet of types, more than flesh and blood people. The husbands are self-pitying and emotionally stunted. The wives are sexually unadventuresome. 

It is a present day version of the world of John O’Hara or John Cheever, but without distinctive markings to the characters. 

Having said that, the issue they struggle with is an interesting one that many people face, and the playwright has mustered enough skill to put the story through some twists and turns, and to create reversals of expectation. So although the characters’ narcissism is initially annoying, as the play progressed I was pulled into the story. 

Among the show’s highlights is annoying philanderer Tom (Bill Geisslinger) unsuccessfully pleading his case for new love early on to friends Karen (Lauren Lane) and Gabe (Dan Hiatt). 

Another strong scene is the fight between Tom and estranged wife Beth (Lorri Holt), in which the conflicted couple expresses the feelings they’ve held back, and this leads to love-making. 

“Dinner with Friends” is the sort of bland script in which it’s as much up to the actors as the playwright to create the characters, and Berkeley Rep’s cast of four does a good job of this under Richard Seyd’s careful direction. 

Long-time Berkeley actress Holt’s eccentric divorcing Beth is some of her best work.  

As her husband Tom, Geisslinger is aggressive, annoying and ultimately sympathetic. 

The other couple is less distinctly defined. Friend Karen is played by Lauren Lane, best known for her role as C.C. Babcock on television’s “The Nanny.” 

The Berkeley Rep’s design team does sharp work. John Iacovelli, for five seasons production designer of television's “Babylon 5,” has created seven different striking sets for seven scenes. Six of them are domestic nooks, and one is a New York bar. 

Sound designer Matthew Spiro's contributions include offstage children, a dog, and an automobile. 

Playwright Margulies teaches at Yale School of Drama. “Dinner with Friends” is the third play of his to be staged by Berkeley Rep, who also produced “Sight Unseen” in the 1993-94 season, and “Collected Stories” in the 1998-99 season. 

Although “Dinner with Friends” is a vanilla story about vanilla people with vanilla lives, it reminded me of myself and a lot of other vanilla people I know. 

Ultimately, this is a wistful story of aging in a conjugal relationship, and the gains and losses of identity that individuals experience along the way. 

“Dinner with Friends,” presented by Berkeley Rep, 2025 Addison, through Jan. 5. (510) 647-2949. Student/senior half-price RUSH one half-hour before curtain. Advanced sale tickets are $15.99 for anyone under 30 with valid ID.