The deceptively simple story of HBO's Dinner With Friends follows married food critics Gabe (Dennis Quaid) and Karen (Andie MacDowell), who find their idyllic suburban New England world shaken when their closest pals, Tom (Greg Kinnear) and Beth (Toni Collette), decide to divorce. Over the course of seven meaty scenes, we feel the profound emotional fallout of the split for each of these four characters.
The quartet of actors jells magnificently. As foodies who use their culinary obsession to avoid chewing over important issues facing their marriage, Quaid and MacDowell artfully flesh out their characters, avoiding the danger of turning them into yuppie couple stereotypes. Quaid allows glimmers of Gabe's vicarious fascination with Tom's newfound sexual liberty to peek through his primal loyalty to his wife. MacDowell can seem stiff in certain roles (such as ''Green Card''), but here she makes the judgmental Karen feel like a more mature version of her repressed character in the seminal 1989 indie drama ''sex, lies, and videotape.'' (The fact that both actors recently endured marital breakups adds resonance to their performances.)
Aussie native Collette does a flawless American accent without the ''listen to me I'm doing a flawless American accent'' showiness of her overrated, Oscar nominated turn in 1999's ''The Sixth Sense.'' She locates the deep insecurities lurking beneath Beth's kooky artiste exterior and weeps with an unsettling conviction.
Then there's Kinnear. What an impressive actor this guy has turned out to be. Without losing his sly comic timing, the ex ''Talk Soup'' smart-ass continues to display ever subtler shades of smarm. He makes you see how Tom can honestly believe his self-righteous assertion that his affair with a much younger woman was actually ''a cry for help.'' (''Were your cries detectable by human ears, or just by the dogs in the neighborhood?'' Beth bitterly spits back.)
In the end, the play's the thing. ''You never know what couples are like when they're alone,'' Gabe says. That's just one of playwright Donald Margulies' many plainspoken yet universally true observations in this adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize winning work. Astringently witty and ultimately heart shattering, ''Dinner With Friends'' is an expertly prepared gourmet feast in a world of TV dinners.