Cumbersome scenery keeps the current Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy’s all-star presentation of Dinner with Friends, playing June 21-24 and June 27-July 1 in the Kennedy Theater in the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Raleigh, from reaching its full comic and dramatic potential. Moreover, extended intervals in which the four-member cast helps stagehands shift scenery and furniture, in full view of the audience, breaks the spell that Donald Margulies’ quirky 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Drama winner casts over its audiences.
Less would definitely be more here. If Burning Coal Theatre Company artistic director Jerome Davis and HSN technical director and scenic and lighting designer Curtis Lee Jones dispensed with the unnaturally limber “walls” and put the tables and chairs on slides and the bed(s) on rollers, it would facilitate more cinematic scene changes. If I remember correctly, there is not a single decoration on any of the walls, which is strange given that one of the wives is a bad painter who would surely hang her hideous expressionistic compositions in her home.
The running time of Dinner with Friends is approximately two hours, but all the starts and stops necessitated by the tiresome changes of scenery make it seem much longer — not to mention the fact that having the actors pitch in is distracting, to say the least. At minimum, the superfluous furnishings, such as the four folding chairs and the empty(!) bookcases, could easily be jettisoned.
Chris Chappell and Jeri Lynn Schulke play food writer Gabe and gourmet cook extraordinaire Karen, and Michael Brocki and Katja Hill portray attorney Tom and housewife and aspiring artist Beth — two middle-aged married couples with children who have been a foursome since Karen introduced her best friend Beth to Gabe’s former college roommate and best friend Tom during a memorable weekend at Gabe and Karen’s vacation home at Martha’s Vineyard. That foursome is about to be shattered by the totally unexpected announcement that one of the couples is breaking up.
Gabe and Karen live to eat rather than eat to live, and Tom and Beth enjoy the food and the friendship — although there is always a faint tone of condescension in Karen’s comments. Schulke, who seemed uncharacteristically nervous at the start of the play Wednesday night, soon settled down and gave a fine performance as Karen, a real Iron Chef who wears the pants in her and Gabe’s family.
Michael Brocki tackles the thankless role of Tom with obvious relish, and even makes the ostensible snake in the two couples’ Garden of Eden sympathetic — which is no small task, given that Tom is a lawyer as well as an unfaithful husband. Katja Hill’s crisp characterization makes Beth both a charming eccentric, with pretensions to (but no talent for) being a serious painter, as well as a leading candidate for the title of the Queen of Passive Aggression.
Compared to the dynamic performances of his three fellow cast members, Chris Chappell’s portrayal of Gabe is laidback and lightweight. The strong personalities of the other three characters push Gabe to the background, which makes it hard for him to get his share of the spotlight in Dinner with Friends.
Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy presents Dinner with Friends Wednesday-Saturday, June 20-23 and 27-30, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, June 24 and July 1, at 3 p.m. in the Sara Lynn and K.D. Kennedy Theater in the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 1 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $27.50, except $20 June 21st and groups of seniors and $27.50 for TWO tickets July 1st. Progress Energy Center Box Office: 919/831-6060. Group Rates: 919/828-3726. Note: There will be FREE complimentary beverages and desserts at all intermissions. Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy: http://www.hotsummernightsatthekennedy.org/shows.html#dwf. Internet Movie Database (2001 TV Movie): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0271461/. Donald Margulies: http://www.yale.edu/english/profiles/margulies.html (Yale University) and http://www.ibdb.com/person.asp?ID=5091 (Internet Broadway Database); and http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0546869/ (Internet Movie Database).