Donald Margulies' Dinner With Friends won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for drama as well as other honors. It was chosen by Actor's Theatre of New Orleans for its opening production five years ago, just before Hurricane Katrina. Artistic director René J.F. Piazza and managing director Chelle Ambrose celebrated the anniversary of their Metairie playhouse with a reprise of the play.
Actor's Theatre is known for knockabout comedies like A Christmas Carol — The Whole Story and Dracula — The Whole Story, both written by and sometimes starring Piazza. Occasionally, the talented troupers catch you off-guard with something that cuts closer to the heart.
Actor's Theatre handled the straight, modern drama of Dinner impressively. Gabe (Leon Contavesprie) and wife Karen (Chelle Abrose) are entertaining longtime friend Beth (Vanessa Cloke) at a dinner. Beth's husband Tom should be there, but he's "out of town on business." Gabe and Karen talk about their happy jaunt through Italy while their kids, offstage, quibble about watching a DVD. In short, we see a tranquil scene of middle-class home life.
Beth is upset and finally confesses that Tom has left her. He's fallen in love with another woman. "He says I gave him 75 percent and she gives him 120 percent," Beth says bitterly.
Later, Beth is reading in bed when Tom (Benjamin Clement) bursts in unexpectedly. He says he couldn't fly because of a snowstorm and no hotel rooms are available. He becomes furious when he finds out Beth told their friends about his affair, and he doesn't believe he deserves all the blame for their failed relationship. An angry tussle turns into sex, and Tom later says to Gabe: "Rage is the best aphrodisiac there is."
The scene shifts to Martha's Vineyard 12 years earlier. Gabe and Karen have separately invited Tom and Beth in the hope of bringing them together romantically. The scheme works and we see high hopes and happiness flare up, already aware it will lead to a broken marriage. Many of the remaining scenes involve the two women or the two men trying to piece things back together and preserve old friendships.
Dinner With Friends is a delicate study of feelings, and Piazza elicited honest, nuanced performances from the able cast. — Dalt Wonk