Divorce can shatter individual families as well as close friends. When Karen and Gabe learn their best friends are splitting, it sends ripples through their own marriage. If the assumed happiness of others isn't a given, is theirs?
That's the premise of Donald Margulies' rather banal Dinner With Friends, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000. (By contrast, his Time Stands Still is a much more profound look at the nature of relationships.) Dinner With Friends, a midlife crisis play, now at the Laura Pels Theatre, centers on four self-centered people. Food writers Karen (Marin Hinkle) and Gabe (Jeremy Shamos) are outraged when Tom (Darren Pettie), a pragmatic lawyer, leaves Beth (Heather Burns), an artist, for another woman.
Tom, an adult frat boy with a rampant id, rhapsodizes about sex with his new girlfriend, a counterpoint to the unhappiness and alienation he felt with Beth. She, in turn, is stunned by his departure, though it's clear from the outset -- we see them on their first meeting 12 years earlier -- that they have little in common, save the ability to flirt.
Of course, time and children change relationships, but the overarching questions rattle both couples: Is there a difference between our private lives and our public face? Do we ever really know anyone?
That's legitimate terrain for drama, but it's hard to care in this instance.
Beth is initially shattered, but attuned to the subtle power plays of friendship. Karen is understandably angry for her friend, but also threatened by her chance at happiness. Gabe owns up to adult responsibilities, while wondering why Tom doesn't. There are darker aspects to the disintegration of a marriage than are evident here. It's all so surface; there's more time spent waxing rhapsodic about the lemon-almond polenta cake than digesting a distasteful truth: People lie and deceive each other -- even if they purport to be happy.
Director Pam MacKinnon, who won the Tony for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? last year, keeps her cast on an even keel. The expectations we have of others, which help anchor our own lives, may be an illusion. And as Gabe and Karen learn, there isn't enough wine in the world to make that reality palatable.
Photo: Jeremy Daniel