The recently betrothed theatergoer should be warned that Eye of the Storm's Dinner with Friends, like shopping for wedding garb at Kaplan Brothers or seeing Cuba Gooding Jr.'s Boat Trip, might not be ideal date material. The line about all marriages sliding into a certain "base-line wretchedness" could lead to more cold feet than huaraches in Siberia. Donald Margulies's Pulitzer Prize-winning script concerns two upper-crust East Coast couples who've been bosom friends for more than a decade. They've watched one another's kids grow into pre-teenhood and have made regular group getaways to Martha's Vineyard, the site of one telltale flashback scene. As the title suggests, most of the scenes are played over food or drinks, settings efficiently rendered by set and lighting designer Joe Stanley and props designer Dana Lewman. They've created the theatrical equivalent of a Swiss army knife: an elegant table setting quickly becomes a cozy bed with just a few subtractions and additions. It's one of several ingenious, between-scene transformations that mirror the mutating, disintegrating relationships depicted when the lights are up.
Domestic agitation among well-heeled marrieds has been explored extensively onstage and on film, and presumably will continue to be as long as middle-aged marrieds are writing scripts and buying theater tickets. Yet Dinner with Friends harrows this well-trod ground with so much depth, wit, and acuity, it feels like a revelation. In the opening scene, quirky amateur painter Beth (Kristen Frantzich) breaks down sobbing at an intimate dinner party hosted by Karen (Charity Jones) and Gabe (Terry Hempleman), a loving but squabble-prone pair of food journalists. Beth's husband Tom (J.C. Cutler) has recently announced that he has been unhappily married for years and is leaving for another woman (a "stewardess," says Beth scornfully; a travel agent in Tom's version).
Tom initially seems like the heavy in the split, but as the play progresses, Beth is revealed to be equally culpable. Their divorce and oddly hasty recoveries bring into relief the diminished passion between Gabe and Karen. All are disturbed that their long-term friendships were apparently situationally determined. The friendships really feel long-term, played by the quartet of actors with a dovetailing comfort. Little moments--a grieving, stressed-out Beth blowing up at the dog, or one of Gabe's foot-in-mouth comments that instantly turns Karen's affection to hostility--project the years of frustration that informs them. The perfect anniversary date?