”Marriages all go through a kind of baseline wretchedness from time to time,” says Gabe (played by the sensational Jeremy Shamos), the voice of reason in Donald Margulies’ wistful Dinner With Friends. This sentiment, directed at his fortysomething pal Tom (Darren Pettie), who’s just upended his own marriage to run off with a stewardess — sorry, travel agent! — is supposed to be comforting. But there’s not much solace to be found in Margulies’ Pulitzer Prize?winning drama, particularly in Pam MacKinnon’s wonderfully unsentimental production now at the Roundabout Theatre’s Laura Pels Theatre Off Broadway.
On the surface, Margulies has penned a play about a breakup — Tom and his wife, Beth (Heather Burns) — and how it affects their married best friends Gabe and Karen (Marin Hinkle). As if that’s not depressing enough, he’s also exploring the collapse of friendships: The two couples, of course, can never again vacation in the Vineyard together, and their kids won’t grow up side by side as the parents had planned; Gabe and Tom drift apart, partly due to Gabe’s uncompromising honesty and partly due to Tom’s new daily-sex-in-the-shower routine; and Beth pulls away from Karen, picking a laughably absurd fight over Karen’s domestic-goddess stature. (Of course, anyone would feel insignificant in Karen’s kitchen. She and Gabe are professional foodies — galloping gourmets who will trek to Rome to meet an 86-year-old woman with the secret to preparing the perfect pomodoro. Their first-scene speech detailing every ingredient — the redder-than-red garden-grown tomatoes, the hand-crushed garlic — is practically food porn.)
MacKinnon gives those two scenes — Gabe and Tom’s and Karen and Beth’s ”breakups” — an unexpected weight. They’re almost as upsetting as Tom and Beth’s split…perhaps even more so. That could, however, be owing to a lack of chemistry between Burns and Pettie, who both radiate a curious coldness. Shamos and Hinkle, meanwhile, couldn’t be more perfectly matched.
Where your sympathies fall and whose side you take — because, inevitably, you will take sides — will likely depend on your age, your gender, and probably your marital status. Do I have more tolerance for the wayward Tom today than I did watching the original 1999 production? Surprisingly, yes. Am I less jealous of the seemingly perfect Gabe and Karen this time around? Definitely. Because, to quote Gabe (again, the voice of reason): ”The thing is, you never know what couples are like when they’re alone; you never do. You know that: There’s no way of knowing.” Well, there’s some comfort in that. B+
(Tickets: RoundaboutTheatre.org or 212-719-1300)