In her two celebrated Broadway outings as director – Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – Pam MacKinnon has proven that she has a kind of x-ray vision into the fraught dynamics of a long-running marriage. So it shouldn’t be surprising that she is now giving audiences an often-piercing revival of Donald Margulies’ Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Dinner with Friends at the Roundabout at Laura Pels Theatre.
True, her production isn’t as perfectly cast (especially in one central role) as Daniel Sullivan’s award-winning 1999 Off-Broadway premiere, but in MacKinnon’s skilled hands, the work still can feel like a punch to the gut to anyone navigating the stormy shores of wedded life, or even a new relationship. (Caveat emptor: this is probably not the best choice for a first-date outing.)
The compact, seven-scene play opens in the kitchen of seemingly perfect couple Gabe (Jeremy Shamos) and Karen (Marin Hinkle), a pair of obsessed foodies waxing rhapsodic over their latest culinary adventure to Italy while serving a picture-perfect dinner to best friend Beth (Heather Burns), an artist and mother who is obviously far less accomplished and put-together than Karen.
At first, Beth explains the reason for husband Tom’s (Darren Pettie) absence is another business trip, but soon breaks down and explains that he’s left her for another woman. While Beth paints herself as the injured party, we soon not only hear Tom’s side of the story (self-serving as it sometimes sounds), but we later discover that Beth isn’t the only one capable of betrayal.
Unsurprisingly, the revelation cuts the other couple to the core, especially because they fixed up Beth and Tom – Gabe’s best friend from college – over a dozen years ago. But guilt, or even remorse, isn’t the only issue on their minds; Tom’s decision to “blow up his family” leaves Gabe wondering if sticking to his vows was really the right course, and puts Karen’s self-confidence on shaky footing.
Equally important, the weaknesses in Gabe’s friendship with Tom and Karen’s with Beth are not just exposed, but pried open. The results are open wounds that will never really heal. Unfortunately, Burns’ transformation in the play’s key scene in Act Two, when she lashes out at Karen for making her feel inadequate throughout their lives, isn’t nearly as convincing as it needs to be for this interaction to truly crackle. The actress has some fine moments, especially in the scene where Beth and Tom first meet in Nantucket, but overall she performs the role much less effectively than its originator, the amazing Julie White.
For her part, Hinkle captures Karen’s need for control quite effectively throughout the play, painting a complex portrait of a woman who seems unable to deal with any imperfection, whether found in herself or in another human being. Nonetheless, she gives the role a bit more vulnerability (and far less brittleness) than the extraordinary Lisa Emery did the first go-round.
Pettie perfectly essays Tom’s Peter Pan-like quality, giving us a detailed picture of the popular frat boy who refuses to grow up (even though we’re led to believe he’s a highly successful lawyer). Yet, even when Tom’s actions are truly thoughtless, Pettie manages to never make the character completely unsympathetic.
Given Shamos’ long track record of excellent performances in recent years, it seems odd to call this portrayal a revelation. And yet, I think this is the actor’s finest work to date. Watching Shamos almost invisibly devolve from the carefree, first-married Gabe into the unhappy, scared, yet resigned middle-aged man we see in the show’s devastating final scene is both heartbreaking and harrowing. And should MacKinnon ever want to take another crack at Virginia Woolf, there can be no question she’s found her next George!