In Artists Repertory's 'Dinner With Friends,' food fills a void that love leaves hungry

If your love life is going down the tubes, you might as well dine in style.

These are the rules of engagement in Donald Margulies' 'Dinner With Friends,' winner of the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for drama. This intimate study of two middle-aged couples Ñ one married, the other teetering on the brink of divorce Ñ is now playing at Artists Repertory Theatre.

Set in Connecticut, Manhattan and Martha's Vineyard, Mass., the play spans 12 years in the lives of two upper-middle-class couples. It opens in the home of Gabe and Karen, two food connoisseurs who prepare a meal for their flighty friend Beth. Over a slice of almond-lemon polenta torte, Beth breaks down and reveals that she and her husband, Tom, have called it quits because of Tom's affair with a travel agent.

As Gabe and Karen ponder the breakup, a tricky question pops up: Can you ever really trust your spouse? Karen harbors deep resentment toward Tom and has unfounded suspicions that Gabe is holding something back from her.

While Karen and Gabe navigate this stormy passage in their marriage, Beth and Tom split up and find happiness in new relationships. When it comes to long-term relationships, the play suggests, there's honor in sticking around for the long haul Ñ and in knowing when it's time to call it quits.

Most of this dialogue-heavy piece takes place in the present, except for a flashback set in a Martha's Vineyard beach house. Food and drink appear in nearly every scene. The characters indulge in fine wines and gourmet meals as though these are medications for heartache.

'Dinner With Friends' delivers razor-sharp dialogue and good character development. Despite these strengths, the play suffers at times from a lack of originality. Neurotic characters trapped in dysfunctional relationships certainly make for intriguing drama. But it feels as though Margulies has simply borrowed these themes from Woody Allen films such as 'Husbands and Wives' without putting a fresh spin on them.

Of the four cast members, Susannah Mars stands out in her focused performance as the controlling, vulnerable Karen. As Beth, Sarah Lucht is less convincing. She overdoes the character's frazzled mannerisms, resulting in a performance that's more aggravating than engaging. Grant Byington as Gabe and Michael Fisher-Welsh as Tom hold their own, though they're not especially memorable.

Jon Kretzu, whose credits at Artists Repertory include last season's 'Never the Sinner' and 'Side Man,' directs 'Dinner With Friends' with a minimalist's touch. He stages the production in the round, with seating on all sides of the floor-level set.

The props Ñ such as wine bottles, tables and chairs Ñ are purely functional, keeping our attention on the actors rather than their surroundings.

Caustic and disquieting, 'Dinner With Friends' won't make you hungry for romance. You may want to whip up a nice chocolate soufflŽ when you get home, though.

Contact Stephen Blair at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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