A quartet of strong performances mitigate much of the smugness of Donald Margulies writing in Dinner with Friends at the Golden Goose Theatre in Camberwell
“One lousy handjob could have saved your marriage”
Front Foot Theatre mounted a particularly emotionally devastating production of Rabbit Hole earlier this year so I was intrigued to see what they would make of another Pulitzer Prize-winning play in Donald Margulies’ 1998 drama Dinner with Friends. Truth be told, I’d forgotten I’d seen the play before, at the Park Theatre back in 2015 but given I wasn’t much of a fan of it then, who knows if I’d’ve booked in!
Margulies revels in his portrait of smug middle-class heteronormativity, two comfortably well-off couples who have to deal with the fallout when one of them splits and the friendships between them all are subsequently tested. Gabe and Karen are full of the joys of their Italian holiday but when Beth breaks down at a welcome dinner back as husband Tom is away with work, it is clear there’s more than the denseness of the polenta cake to worry about.
Part of Margulies’ thesis is about the way in which information is relayed in situations like these. Tom is gutted that Beth broke the news without him as it now means that she is irrevocably in charge of the narrative. And as we skip around in time, way back to the beginning of their relationship as Karen introduces the pair, there’s something of a study of how even picture-perfect marriages – and friendships – are rarely everything they seem on the surface.
I’d argue though that the construction of the play works against an interesting journey for these characters. Having set the narrative up on their closeness, the subsequent apparent atomisation of the group doesn’t ring true as personality developments are delivered via exposition dumps as if they’re strangers. A florid turn of phrase heightens this sense of artificiality which has an unfortunately alienating effect at times.
The saving grace comes in Lawrence Carmichael’s production which tries its best to play up the lightness in the play. A mind-boggling eclectic score accompanies movement interludes that speak to the little moments that make up so much of a relationship. And a quality cast work overtime to bring believable emotionality to the script in the moments where they can.
Helen Rose-Hampton and Jason Wilson as Karen and Gabe look on sorrowfully as the impact of their friend’s divorce ripples through their own marriage (Wilson is particularly effective). And Julia Papp and Kim Hardy each shine as they toil through that emotional wreckage to hopefully get to the other side. I remain largely unconvinced that Margulies’ play has anything substantive to say about the genuine complexities of relationships but Front Foot Theatre and their production here certainly do.