‘Dinner With Friends’ at Providence Players of Fairfax by Terry Byrne

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FOUR AND A HALF STARS
Fresh from snaring eight 2012 WATCH awards, mostly for technical excellence, the Providence Players of Fairfax are serving up some refreshingly meaty artistry in Dinner With Friends, a 2000 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama by Donald Margulies, directed by Tina Thronson and produced by Chip Gertzog.

Melissa Dunlap and David Whitehead. Photo by Chip Getzog.
Melissa Dunlap and David Whitehead. Photo by Chip Gertzog.

Warning: You may need something stronger than a consoling cup of Keurig coffee available in the lobby of the historic James Lee Community Center to wash this one down, especially with so much “wine” and truth flowing onstage. For, dearly beloved audience, you are gathered here tonight to lift the veil on matrimony – of your own coupling and those of all your friends.

Meet Gabe & Karen and Tom & Beth. The show opens at home in a slice of Gabe and Karen’s kitchen — a foodies’ kitchen realistically designed and cluttered by Raedun de Alba and set decoration and properties team Susan Kaplan and Sue Winfield. Actually, the set is more like a hopping bed-and-breakfast. More on that later.

Married food critics Gabe and Karen, who finish each other’s sentences but quibble over the details, are force-feeding a distraught Beth tidbits from their recent gastronomic adventures in Italy over a course of five hours, until Beth can’t stand it anymore and spills the beans: She and Tom are getting divorced. Because these couples have been best friends for years — you know, the couple you vacation on Martha’s Vineyard with, raise 2.2 kids each with, go antiquing and take samba lessons with — the betrayal gets rationed out, along with equal parts’ heartburn.

Only once do all four characters occupy the same reality on stage, and that’s in a flashback in the second act, the dinner party that brought them together. Throughout, dinner is never really served, only prepared or reheated; it’s the couples themselves who get served, put on notice, as institutionalized notions of marriage, monogamy and honesty are shredded. Beth and Tom, in turns, plead their case to Gabe and Karen, because the friends who stand up for us, picking the bride’s or groom’s side, also bear witness to our marriages, serving as judge and jury — or at least the nutty peanut gallery. This isn’t about “Dinner” with friends — the big “D” stands for “Divorce” with friends.

Thronson squeezes every drop of realism from Margulies’ yummy script: Zingy dialogue feels candid, as if the actors are doing improv, and they truly own their space, as if they’ve lived all their lives on this stage.

David Whitehead is bang-on persuasive as a beguiled and grounded Gabe. He plays perfect host to us voyeurs, whetting appetites at the start with an infectious laugh and lively commitment. His timing and temperament prove airtight. And his Act Two soliloquy in which he deconstructs life’s meaning from watching his sons play with LEGOs? Priceless.

Michael Donahue and Jayne L. Victor. Photo by Chip Gertzog.
Michael Donahue and Jayne L. Victor. Photo by Chip Gertzog.

As Gabe’s piquant accompaniment, PPF newcomer Melissa Dunlap is a charmingly fastidious Karen. She’s the one who “set up” Beth and Tom in the first place and just needs everything to be perfect, but it’s the peeling away of her thin onion skin that offers other failed Martha Stewarts in the audience vicarious absolution.

The only piece askew in this party of four is Jayne L. Victor as crumpled Beth. When Karen presents her with souvenir placemats from their trip abroad, this critic is reminded of John Updike’s description in The Witches of Eastwick of how wives have an uncanny ability to turn their husbands into plasticized placemats. Beth exhibits this sort of power over Tom. But Victor inhabits her too shruggingly, like a plangent Rhoda to Dunlap’s perky Mary Tyler Moore. While Victor does bring a strong New Yorker vibe to the proceedings — the couples are Connecticut-based mega-commuters who escape to The City for work and play. One wishes was more convincing as both a slighted spouse and free-spirited (misguided) artiste. In one steamy bedroom scene with estranged lawyer-husband Tom (Michael Donahue), she finally hit her mark as an emotional cyclone.

The guys do rule this show. And though Tom is introduced as a villainous home-wrecker, Donahue redeems him, heroically — the prophet who will lead us not into temptation but awaken us from the somnambulism of society’s expectations. He throbs with an animal magnetism akin to a young Marlon Brando. Only when he rips off his clothes do we notice Costume Designer Robbie Snow’s crisp handiwork, or when flipping a phallic tie picked out by his new, nympho girlfriend. Compared to Whitehead’s comfy stuffiness (100% free-range down), Donahue is some hot stuff, making us uncomfortable as he violates others’ space or bursts through someone else’s prescribed boundaries. He simply simmers.

The show’s ‘a-ha’ moment comes when the two men meet downtown for a drink, standing at a high-standing, cherrywood, utterly manly cocktail table — the atmosphere created with this simple set piece is so precise, you can smell the liquor, feel the bustle of upscale clientele all around — and get really real.

Here it’s worth mentioning: What audiences have come to expect from PPF’s set construction guru John Coscia are massive builds, static suggestions of place with limitless ins and outs, ups and downs. The fact this set is done piecemeal with moving parts — revolving kitchens, dueling tables for two, bedrooms angling as battlegrounds — suggests a truer, temporal state of affairs. It’s the beautiful mess in which we more often find ourselves, or what happens to that photo-styled culinary concoction the moment we mash it up into mush, inside our mouths and not on display for the whole world to see, provided we mind our manners.

Private spaces are made public, and public ones intimate. The men’s tavern lectern transforms into a confessional chamber, just as a vine-trellised, al-fresco café table for the women in the previous scene (you expect tea, but it’s more wine with their whining) provides premises for their own disassembling, although it feels less authentic.

Overheard by patrons both during the show and at intermission: “Same thing happened to my neighbor” or “I know people like that” or “Sadly, I’ve met men like that.” Confess. We ARE people like that.

The rotating scenery makes for some awkwardly long set changes — also missing are PPF’s soundtrack interludes — but Swiss-army-knife Technical Director Jimmy Gertzog makes up for it with lifelike sound effects that are perfectly timed (pre-recorded dogs and kids) and hauntingly real lighting effects (under-counter dimmers, headlamps in the driveway, nightstand reading lights, and killer sunsets).

Michael Donahue and David Whitehead. Photo by Chip Gertzog.
Michael Donahue and David Whitehead. Photo by Chip Gertzog.

Dinner With Friends is neither for the faint of heart nor the weak of stomach. Its blend of brutal honesty and merry malfeasance is meant to be savored with your closest pals — you know the ones. Just be sure to plan for dessert and wine afterward to chew things over.

Running Time: About two hours, with a 15-minute intermission.

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Dinner With Friends plays through April 20, 2013 at James Lee Community Center – 2855 Annandale Road, in Falls Church, VA. For reserved seats, e-mail providenceplayerstickets@cox.net or leave voice mail at (703) 425-6782, or order them online.