By April Caires

Posted November 20, 2007 in Arts & Culture

It’s 2 a.m., and 43-year-old Tom (Kadn Fox) is pissed. He just walked in from a frigid Connecticut snowstorm only to find an even icier reception in his bedroom from his wife of 12 years, Beth (Stephanie Grimley). His marriage is headed for certain divorce, and he’s about to spend yet another sleepless night on the couch. But none of this is what’s got Tom upset.

He’s upset because she got to the friends first.

With their marriage quickly folding, the couple had agreed to break the news of the divorce to their best friends, Gabe (Jeff Deards) and Karen (Julie Mort), together. But just a few hours prior, at one of the weekly dinner parties that are a sort of familial ritual for the two couples, Beth broke that agreement, and Tom is irate. “You’ve prejudiced my case!” he yells at Beth. From there the argument swells into a thunderstorm of accusations—“You refuse to hear me!,” “You never took me seriously as an artist!,” “You won’t touch me!”—all reeking of long-fermented bitterness.

Luckily for them both, warfare makes excellent foreplay—“Rage is an amazing aphrodisiac,” Tom drivels—and their marital combat dissolves into inclement love-making.

Helmed by director Bruce Hutchins and featuring a cast of IE theater vets, Chino Theatre’s new production of Dinner with Friends is a worthy revisiting of Bruce Margulies’ Pulitzer-winning drama. The play was all the rage when it debuted back in the late ‘90s, and it’s no wonder. Birthed in an age when broken homes are as prevalent as unbroken ones and “urban tribes” have largely replaced biological extended families, Dinner with Friends was not so much a unique confection as a story waiting to be told. Its themes are just as relevant today. After 12 years of friendship and dinner parties, trips and kids, the startling news that Tom has had an affair gives way to an even more startling question for the two couples: Can their makeshift family survive the break-up of half its members? 

The news of Tom’s affair does, as he predicted, prejudice the friends against him. Perfectionist Karen leaps straight to judgment. “Some things are not forgivable,” she declares, even as her husband begs her to hear Tom out. When Tom does finally speak, what he reveals is the secret, hobbled ruins of a marriage between two people who should never have been together in the first place. An affection-starved husband, a frosty wife, loads of miscommunication, and massive stockpiles of resentment—his reasons, and hers, are nothing new in the annals of divorce. But truth is truth, and Tom’s testimony of a life-sucking union to a woman who looks at him “with withering disappointment all the time,” contains plenty of it.

Tom and Beth’s troubles lead Gabe and Karen to do some soul-searching about their relationship as well. Gabe and Karen were the ones who first introduced Tom and Karen, after all. In the course of the play, the pair comes to symbolize the social pressure-cooker of singleness, in which the search for a spouse becomes the overriding focus not only of singles themselves, but of their family and friends, all of whom long for the vicarious assurance of seeing them “settled,” for better or for worse.

The strength of Dinner with Friends is its dexterity. Margulies resists the temptation to glorify marriage and vilify divorce—and the temptation to do the opposite. Tom views divorce as the path to self-realization, while Gabe believes breaking up a family is inexcusable. When Gabe bluntly rebukes his friend for breaking the unspoken treatise to stick it out, through even the “baseline wretchedness” that all marriages experience, Tom stabs back: “Sounds like misery loves company to me.”

In the end, Gabe’s indignation gives way to a softer truth: “I cling to Karen,” he admits at last. Lingering in the air between these two men—one running from a marriage, the other holding fast—is one of the play’s core questions: What keeps couples together, and what should?




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