In earlier interviews with the cast and crew of Threshold Repertory's production of Dinner with Friends, the point that came up most frequently was this play's emotional resonance. This story of middle-aged marriage and divorce hit so close to home for so many people, they said, that they'd had walkouts from audience members who just couldn't handle it. Which was a shame, they say, because the play is also funny and really hopeful — if you let yourself see it.
So either the audience on Thursday night consisted of people that were totally secure in their lives as married/divorced/single people, or, this being the second week of Spoleto and Piccolo, they were giddy and ready for a laugh, or, maybe, the cast was just exceptionally funny that night — but for whatever reason, Threshold's intimate little space rang with the sounds of chuckles, belly laughs, giggles, those post-laugh sighs, and even one well-timed snort. It was a little like being in middle school again: someone would let out an outstanding chortle at a relatively serious moment, and the audience would erupt in reaction laughing. Emotional resonance be damned! This was one funny play.
And the audience was right. It is really funny, even though it takes you into the heart of darkness that is the modern upper-middle-class marriage. Dinner with Friends is the story of two couples, Karen and Gabe and Tom and Beth, close friends who vacation together, spend their weekends together, raise their kids together. They're smug and happy in their spots as successful married people, at least according to Karen and Gabe. That all falls apart, however, on the night that Beth shows up to have dinner with Gabe and Karen and tells them that Tom is leaving her for another woman. Suddenly their cozy foursome is fractured, and — even worse — it starts to seem as though that friendship was never as cozy for Tom or Beth as it was for their counterparts. Gabe and Karen are forced to reflect on their lives both as a couple, and as one half of this long friendship that has given them a large part of their identity.
It's less earth-shaking than it sounds. Ruminations on the precariousness of marriage, of a couple, of identity itself, are just so familiar, especially coming from the kind of people that are portrayed in Dinner with Friends. Karen and Gabe are financially comfortable and emotionally smug, and are played to perfection by the actual married couple Erin and Laurens Wilson. The play opens with a bang, as the music that has been playing cuts off sharply, the lights go up brightly, and Gabe (Laurens Wilson) begins talking, mid-sentence, about his and Karen's trip to Italy. He and Erin are, not surprisingly, excellent at conveying the kind of shared mind that some close couples have. They interrupt each other, each more enthusiastic than the other, pointing out their favorite elements of this incredibly simple and delicious meal they had in Rome, waxing eloquent about an elderly woman cook who squeezes tomatoes with her bare hands to make pomodoro. Her bare hands! Have you ever heard anything more amazing?
Well, Beth (Pamela Galle) has indeed heard something more amazing and it's something that is happening to her. Tom (Jay Danner) is leaving her for a younger woman, and as she tells Karen and Gabe it becomes obvious that this turns their world upside down. This house they've built, that they thought was made of brick, comes tumbling down; it turns out it was only made of cards. All thoughts of tomatoes and polenta are, for a brief moment, eclipsed.
Galle is nuanced and vulnerable as Beth, displaying the kind of love laced with jealousy towards Karen that we reserve for friends who are happier than we are. She admirably balances the free-spirited expansiveness and deep insecurity that are equal parts of Beth's character, creating a woman who is both lovable and, at this point in her life, a positive train wreck.
As Beth's disloyal husband Tom, Jay Danner is charismatic and electric; although Tom is the primary transgressor, Danner's easygoing humor and loose-limbed body language make him the most interesting character in the play. It's plain why Beth would be taken enough with this man to marry him, even though it's clear from the moment they meet that these two should not be together.
Lon Bumgarner's directing and Michael Kordek's lighting design make the most of Threshold's space with a spare, versatile set and dramatic use of spotlighting. The four-person cast has great chemistry and is, as previously mentioned, highly in tune with the comedy at the heart of the story. There's a certain ridiculousness to the way two people act together, no matter how tragic it can seem from the inside. And in this performance, the ridiculousness won hands-down.