When a couple determines that its best to spend more time apart, the decision can have ripple effects on others around them. That's the tension at play in Dinner With Friends, playing now at the Roundabout Theatre in New York City. How this group of four (two couples) different characters wound up so close to one another in the first place is a remarkable achievement, and one that's addressed in the play. When things start take a turn for the worse, everyone calls their own relationships and instincts into question. Heather Burns, who stars as "Beth," responded to some of my questions via email:
This play won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000. Were you familiar with it before beginning work on this production? And how'd you prepare for the role of "Beth"?
I was familiar with the play and with Donald Margulies' work. I did not see the original production, though.
Burns: In terms of preparing to play the role of Beth, I did ask some specific questions of people who had been through divorce recently. I mostly drew on my own observations, though. We've all been affected by divorce in one way or another, whether we've experienced it personally, of witnessed family or friends go through it.
"Beth" is a bit of a mess, as they say. What do you think the others are drawn to about her?
Burns: I think Beth is eccentric and makes people laugh, especially when she's younger. I also think, because she's a bit of a mess, she likes being taken care of. Karen and Gabe are people that like entertaining and caring for people, so Beth has a compatible friendship with them.
This play isn't about marriage as much as it is about relationships more generally. What kind of statement do you think it leaves the audience with?
Burns: We've had some talkbacks with audiences, and audience members have talked to us after shows, as well. Older audiences seem to react differently to the play than younger audiences. People of the age range of the characters in the play definitely seem to be hit by the play the hardest, and that has been interesting. But, generally, I think as we keep learning about these characters, the audiences' allegiances switch. Hopefully, that leaves them a bit less judgmental about their own relationships.
Talk a little about the staging. Every scene feels very cramped. Was that just due to restrictions of the size of the stage, or is there some claustrophobic feel to the dynamics of these relationships?
Burns: I'm not sure if a claustrophobic effect was part of the scenic design intention. Possibly, but it wasn't something we discussed as we were blocking the play. In order to integrate the wonderful effect of each scene moving off of the stage while another moves in, every inch of stage space is used.
Six of the seven scenes take place along the same story arc, with one flashback to how "Beth" and "Tom" met. What do you think this flashback adds to the narrative?
Burns: I think that the flashback is there to create a set of stakes that are vital towards how we perceive the scenes that are in the here and now. Because this play takes place at a very specific moment in the aging process, it's important to see from where to where we've come.