Where: Inner London
2 July 2001 WOS Rating: Average Reader Rating: Reader Reviews: View and add to our user reviews In Isak Dinesen's fable Babette's Feast, all the dinner guests experience an increasing sense of spiritual goodness. By the meal's end, they are transformed into an almost beatific state, approaching enlightenment. However, even before dessert is served in Act One of Dinner With Friends, a character is already hitting the troughs of wailing depression, leaving both her hosts edgy and embarrassed.
Donald Margulies' play certainly has food at the heart, if not quite the soul, of its proceedings. At the outset, culinary critics Gabe (
Rolf Saxon) and Karen ( Samantha Bond) are entertaining old friend Beth ( Elizabeth McGovern). The couple are in raptures over a recent working holiday in Italy, bound up in shared memories and experiences. But somewhere between the risotto and the lemon polenta cake, Beth cracks under the domestic bliss and admits her marriage to Tom ( Kevin Anderson) seems to be over.
McGovern, an eternally welcome sight on stage, rasps out her confession through clenched neck muscles whilst clasping Karen's hands like a lifebelt. But later the same evening, an indefinable sadness is also present in the hosts' seemingly contented marital state. Gastronomy clearly binds their shared life like a set of well-whisked eggs. 'How do you find the Shiraz?' enquires Karen. 'Astringent,' replies Gabe, scarcely even registering his wife's question.
As the drama progresses, we see via flashbacks that Karen and Gabe had set up the first date between Beth and Tom. Through a sumptuous dinner for four, naturally, at Gabe's second home in Martha's Vineyard. Indeed, affluence courses through the whole play like a ripple of toffee in vanilla ice cream. And observing the audience in London's comfortable NW3 revealed a few awkward twitches of recognition, as the four well-heeled characters displayed their fortysomething frailties.
But enough frailty to really touch us? Not entirely. Consider Elizabeth McGovern's film debut in
Ordinary People where the ironic title revealed a set of lives shattered by genuine grief. We wait almost impatiently for cracks to appear between Gabe and Karen, but ultimately they end up agonising over their own fluffy security. Beth's kookiness and Tom's urgent sexual drives had them labelled as a disaster from the start, and you feel little sympathy for either. 'Gabe and Karen's job is to make the rest of the world feel incompetent,' remarks Tom, whilst displaying little mettle himself when temptation beckons.
Superbly played by the quartet,
Dinner With Friends casts a comfortless eye on the fakings, the masks of happiness and our everyday family concerns. Ultimately the group's actions touch no-one but themselves, with a shallowness in friendship surfacing unpleasantly. Bittersweet it certainly is, but maybe this play's a dish that could use some red hot chilli to cut through the sweetness of its slow-roasted troubles.
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