Dinner with Friends

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:22

    Admirably, Donald Margulies sees himself as part of this need. He has honesty and a Woody Allenish gift for observing the sad subtleties of language, humor, boredom and self-deception among today's sated middle class. He'll get where he's going someday, I suspect. In the meantime, Dinner with Friends, which deals with two 10-years-plus marriages of couples in their 40s, one of which is breaking up, is a rueful and picturesque waystation.

    Gabe (Matthew Arkin) and Karen (Lisa Emery), food experts just back at their comfortable Connecticut home after a trip to Italy, learn during a rare pause in their breathless reports about amazing eggplants, red peppers and zucchini that their good friend Tom (Kevin Kilner) has left their good friend Beth (Julie White) for another woman. It sounds, first and last, like a fairly ordinary midlife crisis (Beth: "He says I gave him 75 percent, she gives him 120"), but the news nevertheless shocks Gabe and Karen, igniting anxiety and doubts about their own marriage. The rest of the play (with the exception of one flashback to 12 years earlier) deals with the resulting rifts in the cross-couple friendships and difficult talk both between the friends and within the surviving marriage about why anyone ought to stay together.

    To his considerable credit, Margulies spins out the story in unpredictable ways. Beth, for instance, a frustrated artist presented as the injured party in most of the present-day scenes, is shown in the flashback with streaks of petulance and judgmental nastiness that no doubt contributed to her divorce. Also, the younger Tom, a lawyer, is shown flirting with Karen, then Gabe's newlywed bride, which helps explain her immoderate anger at him years later when he leaves Beth. Most interesting of all, both couples habitually interrupt seemingly earnest and passionate exchanges with banal remarks about food and wine ("Oh, God, Gabe, we introduced them." "God, you're right." "What do you think of the Shiraz?" "Astringent"), which has the effect of underscoring that marriage and divorce really are different in this age of blithe self-satisfaction. At least for ordinary and unheroic people like these, fine food really does cushion emotional blows, and elegant wine, placemats and kitchen ceramics really can compensate for lost (or never-sought-for) human connections.

    Not everything is so quietly chilling and well-observed. A nasty post-breakup fight between Tom and Beth, for instance, in which he calls her a "dilettante" (for the first time?) and then they have sex, is seriously contrived. A spat between Karen and Beth built on lines like, "I think you love it when I'm a mess," is painfully trite, despite Emery's superb performance in the scene. And more basically, the stress of children?crucial to both couples' problems, and to all marriages at this stage of life?is mostly evaded (brought actively into the play only in the first scene). In the end, Margulies doesn't push his inquiry far enough. The last scene in particular, a wrap-up bedtime conversation between Gabe and Karen perfectly situated to offer some broader perspective, is a big letdown, resting primarily on a single modest question (is it "inevitable" that "practical matters begin to outweigh...abandon" in couples?) that's already been thoroughly worked over.

    Still, the production directed by Daniel Sullivan is smooth and subtle, and the acting is first-rate all around, particularly the women. Emery's perfunctory hugs and strained smiles as Karen, White's wonderfully precise inauthenticity as happy-sad Beth, both couples' eloquent silences and shared looks: all this and more left me reflecting back on the play days after seeing it.

    Variety Arts Theater, 110 3rd Ave. (13th St.), 239-6200.

    Trudy Blue by Marsha Norman Marsha Norman's Trudy Blue, by contrast, which also deals with a strained marriage, was gone from my mind within 15 minutes. This is because Norman doesn't write with the same spirit of open-minded discovery as Margulies. Her plays?the Pulitzer-winning Night Mother emphatically included?are like the dramatic counterparts of straw-man arguments: they set up utterly contrived emotional predicaments in order to prove how sensitive Norman is to their "deep" social and psychological causes and artificially pitched climaxes, then stand there with their arms folded, as if to say, "I dare you to find fault with such profound feelings as these." Whereas Margulies' characters joke about talking "like bad greeting cards" (Beth's words), trying and sometimes failing to move beyond that, Norman's are cliches to the core, without possessing a scrap of self-awareness about it. Trudy Blue (Sarah Knowlton) is the fictional character and alter ego of a New York writer named Ginger (Polly Draper), who hasn't been feeling well and is told by a doctor (Aasif Mandvi), dressed as a clown to begin with, that she merely has pneumonia, curable with a three-week course of antibiotics. This turns out to be wrong, naturally (like everything that clowns say?); she really has advanced lung cancer and about two months to live. Upon learning this, she first seeks solace and advice from Trudy and the other imaginary people she spends most of her time with, including her dead mother and an acquaintance named James with whom she fantasizes having an affair (played by the same actor who plays her husband Don, John Dossett). In the end, though, she finds the courage to separate from the figments (to Trudy: "You were the problem between Don and me!") and determines to spend her remaining time truly connected with her husband and teenage daughter Beth (Julia McIlvaine).

    Performed on a red-walled stage with various arrangements of black-and-white sliding screens on a circular ceiling track (design by Mark Wendland), this play is, by turns, tedious, obvious, cheaply moving and unflatteringly reminiscent of Wit (which premiered in the same theater and also dealt with terminal illness and easily moveable hospital-like screens). Trudy, prettier, better dressed and more confident than Ginger, makes Ginger feel she is her only true friend, and in repeated snatches of conversation in which she tries to tell Don about her diagnosis, he is portrayed as a shallow, angry prick. In the end, this insensitive husband, too, is revealed to be imaginary (Ginger at the climax: "I'm afraid of my family and afraid of my friends?and you, Trudy Blue, are nothing but my fear of these people that I love"), but by then anyone paying real attention has stopped caring in anything but superficial ways.

    Draper's acute and potent performance as Ginger notwithstanding, the play ultimately has nothing of substance to say about marriage, romance or the depredations of disease, because it's so preoccupied with the shallow psychological truths revealed by its rather ordinary split reality. Several characters actually bother to explain that they exist only in Ginger's mind, as if clumsily inviting the completely obtuse in the audience to share in the work's sentimentality could somehow make it seem more honest or forthright. Trudy Blue is precisely the sort of half-conscious tearjerker Margaret Edson was trying to avoid when writing Wit, and next to it even a self-acknowledged terminal-illness weeper like Marvin's Room seems weighty and substantial.

    MCC Theater, 120 W. 28th St. (betw. 6th & 7th Aves.), 727-7765, through Dec. 18.

    Kiss Me, Kate by Cole Porter and Sam and Bella Spewack Which brings me back to the subject of Kiss Me, Kate, a show that, by all rights (considering its fluffy basic modern ingredients), ought to float off into insubstantiality but instead sticks in the ear and the heart like a beloved tale unheard since childhood. This is because Cole Porter and the Spewacks, in responding to the new dominance of Rodgers and Hammerstein in the late 1940s, decided to ride piggyback on the most substantial book writer they could think of, Will Shakespeare. Attaching the problematic plot of Taming of the Shrew to modern backstage shenanigans with the glue of Porter's rich, fun and unforgettable songs, they found themselves with (among other inspired conceptions) a surprisingly incisive and dynamic portrait of a former marriage. Michael Blakemore's delightful revival makes it seem incomprehensible that nearly half a century elapsed before this show came back to Broadway. There are a few questionable changes to the original book, but they are minor matters. The main point is that there's more sheer energy on the Martin Beck stage than in any current Broadway musical except Kat and the Kings (which just announced a closing date of Jan. 2). Kiss Me, Kate's leads, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie, have so much fun with their roles that one waits eagerly for them to return whenever they exit, even though both play characters who are imperious pains in the ass. Those young enough to have been brought up mainly on soggy Sondheim and flimsy Andrew Lloyd Webber will find this show a hearty revelation after long years of malnourishment: a musical that hasn't been overexposed, in which you really don't secretly stiffen or yawn when the songs arrive but rather wish there were more. Now, that's what I call timeless gratification.

    Martin Beck Theater, 302 W. 45th St. (betw. 8th & 9th Aves.), 239-6200.