River Rep, the professional New York repertory theatre company's fifth show of their 19th season is Donald Margulies' 2000 Pulitzer Prize winning play, "Dinner With Friends". The show began as a commissioned work for the Actors Theater of Louisville and had its world premiere at the 1998 Humana Festival of New American Plays. It then played in California's South Coast Repertory, then in Paris before opening off Broadway in New York in 1999. In this comedy/drama, which is set in Connecticut, is an examination of the nature of friendship through the prism of two couples and the effect of one couple's breakup on themselves and their long-time relationships. When a self-absorbed gourmet and food writer and his wife, (Karen and Gabe) witness the collapsing marriage of friends, (Tom and Beth whom they had originally introduced), they are forced to question their own marriage. The play exposes the same, universal insecurities that people face every time there are shattering changes in their lives. Margulies lets the audience see what happens from the four characters points of view so they can understand the whole picture. His characters are real and he shows them facing their fears of accountability and guilt, love and greed. The show becomes a riveting spectacle of the everyday realities of life. Director Jenn Thompson makes the most of the comic and dramatic moments in the show with four topnotch performers. Each of them has their moment to shine, showing their acting prowess but Jenn forges the quartet into a true ensemble of actors who brilliantly portray them.
Jenn obtains the best from her cast while they seemingly eat and drink through every scene in the show. She surrounds herself with an excellent staff. The wonderful turntable sets are by Tony Andrea which include a beautiful kitchen, two bedrooms and an enormous Martha's Vineyard house. The dynamite lighting is by Marty Vreeland and the current day and 1970's costumes are by the talented, 24 year old, Steven Cozzi who also supplied the multitude of 1890's outfits for "An Ideal Husband". Rychard Curtiss was the stage manager for the entire season. He is a professor at Hofstra University and he keeps the set changes moving smoothly and quickly so there is never a lull in the show. Bravo to all on a job well done.
Gabe and Karen are played wonderfully by Warren Kelley and Jean Tafler. They capture the pretentious nature of this couple of gourmets who have a solid 12 year marriage with minor ups and downs along the way. Their gestures and movements as this constantly serving food and drink couple is perfect. They act like a long married couple during the show but in the flashback to 12 years before shows their playful and sexual natures to the audience as they set up their two separate friends to meet. During the angst of their friends break-up, Gabe and Karen first line up along gender lines but later on when they learn information from Tom and Beth, they are no longer sure. In the last scene, they are alone in their bedroom and they are forced to wonder when the living of their hectic everyday lives replaced the joy of loving each other. Owen Thompson and Susan Riley Stevens play Tom and Beth beautifully as they capture the anger and resentment of their split up which leads to a hilarious sexual encounter. During the flashback they capture the innocence of the 1970's as we watch these diverse individuals become a couple, knowing what their future will be. Later on in the show Beth tells of meeting an old friend and is determined to marry him, revealing a secret past with him and also letting her resentments toward Beth surface. Tom is ecstatically happy with his new paramour and confides things to Gabe who is unable to accept them. Owen and Susan are perfect for these roles, too. All four performers capture the essence of their characters and draw you into what happens with ease. So for some marvelous acting in this contemporary show, be sure to catch "Dinner With Friends". This is a particularly poignant piece for River Rep to conclude its 19th and final season at Ivoryton Playhouse. But River Rep will return next summer for their 20th season with more excellent shows in a new home, hopefully in a nearby area in lovely and scenic Connecticut. Be sure to check their web site to keep track of these talented folks.
A word of praise to Jeff Kunken for his original instrumental music written specifically for this show. Its power and poignancy create the perfect atmosphere for this thought provoking piece of theatre.