Just because Dinner with Friends is much like every other domestic play written in the past eighty years—John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger comes especially to mind—doesn’t mean it is a bad one. In fact, it is excellent. Donald Margulies’ script is witty, unassuming, and quietly perceptive. It opens at the end of a dinner party hosted by Gabe (Jeremy Shamos) and Karen (Marin Hinkle), two white, upper-middle class foodies, the kind of people who will break into an accent mid-sentence in order to assure they are pronouncing the words chicken tikka masala with unassailable authenticity. Over wine and desert—limone-mandorle-polenta—their lifelong friend Beth (Heather Burns) confesses that her husband Tom (Darren Pettie), another lifelong friend, has left her for an airline stewardess. “I’d spent my entire adult life cleaning up one form of shit or another,” Tom later confesses to Gabe. “How do you keep love alive when you’re shoveling shit all day?”
The breakup has obvious ramifications for Gabe and Karen’s marriage, which is loving and steady if a little stale. Furthermore, it totally destroys their respective friendships with Tom and Beth, whose immature reactions to growing old cause the group to drift apart. Ultimately, Mr. Margulies offers two trajectories for well-off men and women in their late ‘forties and early ‘fifties: one can choose the boring but secure and slow-burning pleasures of middle-age and family, or one can choose to recreate one’s youth in the form of new careers and new sex. In a handful of scenes, Dinner with Friends charts these routes, examining both their benefits and their difficulties, generally siding with the uncool yuppies who make their marriage work even when it is at its rockiest.
Mr. Shamos, a veteran stage actor who is never flashy but always transformative, highlights Gabe’s resistance to self-examination: for him, what is not said does not need to be addressed. He and Ms. Hinkle have a nice physical shorthand with each other, even if some of the staging—like a scene where, on opposite sides of the bed, the two soundlessly carry out the ritual to turning down the sheets—can play as a little forced. There is a sense that whatever happens, Gabe and Karen would never transgress certain marital rules, that they would honor the safety of a trusting marriage over other kinds of happiness. But both Mr. Pettie and Ms. Burns never seem able to suggest a history—with each other and with their friends—that is so often discussed throughout the play. “I could feel myself pulling back,” Gabe says to Karen of his final meeting with Tom, mourning the loss of a man he doesn’t love anymore. Unfortunately for us, Mr. Pettie and Ms. Burns never offer anything to make us love them in the first place, they never endear us to the personalities that attracted Gabe and Karen; they are always the narcissistic losers we see crash and burn when the going gets tough.
Despite this, Dinner with Friends remains a rich and melancholy experience, one that will reward those who distrust elephantine monologues (the kind where the title of the play is often found) and clunky, “issue drama” tropes. Perhaps the best thing about it is that it always remains good even at moments where it would be so easy to go bad.