The exuberant opening scene of the current PlayMakers Repertory Company production of Brooklyn playwright Donald Margulies' award-winning R-rated comedy/drama, Dinner with Friends, proves one of my pet theories: Food is middle-aged pornography.
Just listen to two of the characters just back from Europe gush about a tiny 86-year-old Italian cook who grows her own tomatoes, crushes them in her fists, and crushes a glove of garlic on a counter top with a gnarled thumb.
Think about it. Before age 35, couples mainly talk about all the romantic places that they have visited. After age 35, they rarely talk about anything other than the four-star eating establishments on their itineraries. The average couple fondly treasures memories of those meals, and they get flushed when describing them, in intimate detail, to their friends and family.
Most of the time, their eyes glitter during their breathless accounts of restaurants that make the best crab cakes or serve the best white-chocolate mousse. Great food becomes a sort of aphrodisiac, and these couples reminiscing about their all-time favorite meals are clearly aroused.
So it is with Karen and Gabe and Beth and Tom, the two Connecticut couples whose table talk — continued in assorted bedrooms and bars — makes Dinner with Friends a wonderfully wise marital comedy. Internationally known food writers Karen and Gabe (Tandy Cronyn and Kenneth P. Strong) and aspiring abstract painter and all-around free spirit Beth and buttoned-down attorney Tom (Jessica K. Peterson and Ray Dooley) have been best friends of the last 12 years. But a stunning revelation by Beth, at a dinner designed to celebrate Karen and Gabe's triumphal return from their latest excursion to Italy, is about to change all four lives forever.
PRC associate artist Tandy Cronyn gives a peppery performance as Karen, a gourmet cook outraged by Tom's alleged betrayal of Beth. Twelve years ago at their summer place in Martha's Vineyard, Karen and Gabe introduced Beth and Tom, so Karen takes a keen interest in what Gabe's good friend Tom does to her good friend Beth.
PRC company member Ken Strong matches Cronyn's crackerjack characterization with a nicely nuanced low-key portrayal of Gabe, a gifted writer and — by nature of his calmness and tendency to take the long view of volatile situations — the peacemaker of the group.
Strong and Cronyn have great chemistry, and so do guest artist Jessica Peterson and PRC company member Ray Dooley. Peterson's incisive portrait of the somewhat flakey Beth as the aggrieved party paints Tom as a consummate heel. But there is more than one side to their story, and Ray Dooley tells and shows it brilliantly in word and gesture and overall body language.
This four-character play greatly benefits from passionate portrayals by four performers at the top of their craft; and Dinner with Friends director, PRC associate artist Drew Barr, superbly orchestrates the action. Not only does Barr elicit outstanding performances from his all-star cast, but he generates considerable empathy for all four parties by allowing characters time and space to tell their versions of the story.
Scenic designer Narelle Sissons (assisted by Robin Vest) employs only a minimum of furniture and a beautiful painted backdrop to transform the thrust stage of the Paul Green Theatre into a variety of locales: dining rooms and bedrooms of upper middle-class homes in Connecticut, a beach at Martha's Vineyard, a dimly lit barroom, etc.
Lighting designer Mary Louise Geiger creates and sustains an intimate atmosphere in all locales, costume designer Kim Sorenson dresses the play's four characters in a colorful array of winter and summer casual wear, and composer/sound designer Anthony Reimer inserts the sound of children's voices or a musical riff right on cue.
Donald Margulies' Dinner with Friends, which won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, is a wonderfully wise look at marriage and friendship and the strain that martial infidelity puts on both. If you have been through a breakup or a divorce caused in part by your partner's unfaithfulness, portions of this remarkable four-character play may prove hard to watch and hear.
Dinner with Friends is a mature comedy. It reflects a lot of living — and a lot keen observation and a lot of soul searching — on the part of playwright Donald Margulies (Collected Stories and Sight Unseen). PlayMakers Repertory Company's polished presentation, with its smart staging and its crisp characterizations, is a must-see drama that will surely make it onto some critic's 10-best list. Don't miss it.
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents Dinner with Friends Tuesday-Saturday, Jan. 21-25, 28-Feb. 1, and Feb. 4-8, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Jan. 26 and Feb. 2 and 9, at 2 p.m. in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art at UNC-Chapel Hill. $9-$27. 919/962-PLAY (7529). http://www.playmakersrep.org/dinnerpage.html.