Review of Last Night’s ‘Dinner with Friends’

24 Feb

Stark Naked Theatre Company, Studio 101 thru March 11 

By JOHN DeMERS 

If you’ve ever been in a romantic relationship for more than 10 minutes, there’s sure to be somewhere between one and a hundred moments in Stark Naked Theatre’s Dinner with Friends that will startle you, remind you and quite possibly indict you. The two-act play by Donald Marguiles works against its innocuous title to lay bare the large and small warfares that exist at the heart of being lovers, being friends, and growing older every damn step of the way. 

Dinner with Friends is the second production by Stark Naked, founded by local actors Philip Lehl and Kim Tobin-Lehl, who happen to be a married couple themselves, following on the heels of their dark, violent, relationship-driven outing with Strindberg called Debt Collectors. Equally and perhaps more importantly, it’s the first show produced in the Studio 101 theater space within Spring Street Studios that’s now being shared by Stark Naked, Classical Theatre Company and Mildred’s Umbrella. It’s hard to imagine a spot with more talented and passionate theater people working inside it. 

Directed with precision by Kevin Holden, himself the founder of yet another company called Horse Head, Dinner with Friends delineates the loves, hates, fidelities and infidelities of two couples – as sometimes is the case, a married man and woman who twelve years earlier introduced two friends of theirs and now have to watch the demise of the marriage they helped engineer. The fact that both couples have kids who have grown up together only makes matters worse. If it accomplishes nothing else, Dinner is masterful in the way it moves the calculation of the “toll” from a marital breakup far beyond the two people actually breaking up. As someone says quite logically, divorce is “like a death.” And despite all the talk of “friends,” this one is clearly a death in the family. 

The play is organized – a tad too neatly perhaps but hey, this is theater – into a sequence of conversations, most one-on-one. We see the intrusion of The Bad News, followed by a selection of angry-sad-hopeful-resentful-boastful conversations about it. Marguiles does a convincing job of making his men and women totally different and ultimately foreign organisms, along lines that are by now all too familiar. The woman hug, kiss, resent, complain and talk about (or around) everything. The men joke, drool about sex, high-five and only seldom talk about anything meaningful at all. The gulf between those two types of lives is, of course, a major subject of the play. 

Drake Simpson and Tobin-Lehl get the bulk of the histrionics here, since they are the couple splitting open before our eyes. From the first time Beth breaks down in tears, telling her friends Karen and Gabe why her husband really isn’t at dinner, to the final scenes in which she and Tom get to gloat over their new (or maybe not so new) sexual relationships, the pair serves up an emotional rollercoaster. Their bedroom brawl in Act I, filled with screaming, cursing, pushing, slapping, punching and even spitting may prove a tad too real for those who’ve been there-done that.   

And that means that, as the “surviving” couple, Lehl and Shelley Calene-Black come off as quieter and calmer, more “married.” It’s a credit to both the brilliance of the script and the sensitivity of the performances that, quite often, they strike us as no less desperate than their warring friends. Lehl in particular gets to say some important things, a few to his wife but most to his buddy in a rare moment of finding a voice, about the sacrifices we make to make a relationship persevere till death-do-us-part. 

Dinner with Friends is frighteningly intimate, as though we in the audience are simply invisible in a very normal room with people who are more normal than we’d like to think. The fact that the Spring Street space is intimate as well only makes the experience more painful and more memorable.

Photos by Gabriella Nissen: (top) Calene-Black and Lehl; (bottom)Simpson and Tobin-Lehl.

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