About half an hour into the Actors Theatre of Phoenix production of Dinner With Friends, my theater companion leaned over and whispered, "This is great. But what makes it a Pulitzer Prize winner?"
I'd been wondering the same thing about Donald Margulies' perfectly charming, often amusing dramedy about a pair of married couples, one splitting the sheets, the other overreacting. The play enjoyed a respectable off-Broadway run, became a popular telefilm scripted by Margulies and directed by Norman Jewison, and received the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. While it offers a fetching group of characters and a lot of laughs, Dinner With Friends seems at first glance an unlikely candidate for such high honors.
But this play's success is its simplicity. Margulies has written casual dialogue and deceptively simple situations that sneak up on us with quietly powerful revelations about life and love. Rather than a couple of end-of-act huzzahs, there are several small revelations in the course of the evening (disclosing them here would deflate their purpose in the play) that are much more gratifying.
Dinner With Friends
Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe
Continues through Sunday, May 19. Call 602-253-6703.
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The story is slight: Successful food writer Gabe and his wife Karen wig out when they hear that their best friends, Tom and Beth, have separated. Tom has fallen for his travel agent, who gives him "120 percent of herself" and makes him feel like "a boy toy at 43." The couple's breakup jump-starts a series of scenes and flashbacks in which Margulies' characters attempt to untangle knotty friendships and marriages. It's tough going for each of them, because these folks are emotionally paralyzed -- stuck in a conservative, midcentury mindset in which women stay home and cheer their husbands' successful careers.
There's nothing new in the story of a divorce and its impact on those nearby, and in less capable hands, these bitty dramas would be the stuff of slight sitcoms. But Margulies quickly shifts our focus to the other couple, showing us the jealousy and suspicion their friends' split arouses in them. Once Beth recovers from her husband's exit, she realizes that Karen only likes her when she's a mess, and we see Gabe -- who'd rather stay in a fruitless marriage than disrupt his tidy life -- clearly coveting Tom's new romance. Ironically, the couples never share a meal together -- more subtlety from Margulies, who wants us to witness how these self-obsessed people are disconnected from one another. Is there any truth in their relationships? Is a happy marriage anything other than a sham?
These questions are posed in droll dialogue spoken by likable characters, and there's a lot of not-so-playful fun poked at pretentious people whose lives are dictated by the Food Channel and the contents of the latest Williams-Sonoma catalogue. We'd probably hate these people if they weren't so well-written and, in this local production, so warmly realized by a group of talented actors. Debra K. Stevens is, as ever, affable and energetic as prim, uptight Karen. Kim Bennett is suitably smarmy as a shallow fellow who trades up his family for a more immediate kind of happiness, and Maren Maclean plays comedy and drama with equal aplomb. Perhaps the finest performance belongs to Gene Ganssle, perfect as the blustery writer and the only faithful character we meet. He's handed most of the punch lines, but Ganssle manages -- with a single glance or a well-placed frown -- to make Gabe something other than a shallow clown.
Hair-and-makeup maven Manuela Needhammer has supplied some very ugly wigs, and director Andrew Traister, whose work is otherwise impeccable, has designed some sluggish scene changes. But this show's flaws seem insignificant alongside such spectacular performances in a story as pleasurable as this one. Dinner With Friends starts out like lite cuisine but ends up a gourmet meal of good writing and acting that ultimately deserves its high honors.