TAMPA — Tampa Repertory Theatre’s Dinner With Friends serves us a feast of love in all its flavors. It has the sweetness of steadfast devotion and the bitter aftertaste of affection that has dissipated. The rest is just gravy. Piquant, unforgettable gravy.
Award-winning playwright Donald Margulies sprinkles his wit in just the right measure, and Tampa Rep’s production serves it to us on a platter that shimmers with authentic performances and atmospheric sound and lighting.
The play’s first act begins at the home of a middle-aged Connecticut-based writer, Gabe (Ned Averill-Snell), and his editor wife, Karen (Ami Sallee). Their dinner guest, Beth (Emilia Sargent), a longtime friend, has some bad news but struggles to keep things to herself while her affluent besties recount stories from their culinary romp through Italy.
Beth tells them that her husband Tom (Alan Mohney Jr.) couldn’t come because he had to fly to Washington. In the background, we hear the noises of four children, who, after Gabe adjusts the DVD player, are like “four Raphael cherubs watching Toy Story for the 97th time.”
While Gabe is upstairs, Beth breaks down and tells Karen that Tom has left her for another woman. Tom, Gabe’s best friend since college, later comes on the scene and acts justified because of Beth’s treatment of him. He expects his friends to understand and sympathize, but as Gabe and Karen mull over their friends’ divorce, they begin to reveal the cracks in their own seemingly bulletproof marriage. Resentments and disappointments rear their ugly heads and nothing remains as it once was.
One pair fights to make it. Another gives up without a fight. Each partner, in the meantime, resembles ourselves and people we know in everyday life in ways that are alternately embarrassing and vindicating.
Ultimately, Dinner With Friends makes us think most about the latter part of the title: the friends who inhabit our married lives. Gabe, Karen, Tom and Beth show us how the aftershocks of a divorce can rock the foundations of the most rock-solid friendships.
First staged in 2000, Margulies’ two-act dramedy stands out from the pre-9/11, first-world-problem plays of its time. It won the Pulitzer Prize for best drama in 2000 and strikes a stunning balance as it brings us up close to two married couples who are familiar but not cliched.
Margulies’ script is air-tight and well-paced. It allows us to experience each character’s point of view in a carousel of conversation and confrontation, and neither comes across as hyperbolic or overwritten. Discussions revolve around situations as timeless as breathing — the “baseline wretchedness” of marriage, loyalty and the ravages of time on the body. Their dealings with one another go from low-key to raw and confrontational without the whiplash of inorganic plot twists.
And before things get too serious, Gabe’s bon mots lighten the mood. Averill-Snell’s Gabe serves as the voice of reason in the play, but the expert actor reveals moments of fallibility, too, without being overt. He and Sallee have great chemistry and wield the charisma of the big sibling surrogates as their pals come unhinged. Sargent portrays Beth with more edge than the bohemian dilettante she’s written as, and Mohney Jr. injects Tom with the pragmatic confidence and misguided bravado of a guy who refuses to overthink his role in his romantic relationships to the point of oblivion.
Kudos once again to the backstage team at Tampa Rep, who consistently make great art from minimalist sets. Lea Umberger’s strung beams mimic the outline of a roof as Celeste Silsby Mannerud’s lighting catches it just right. She uses cross-hatched gels to mimic the shadows of window frames on the set floor and cleverly recreates the approach of headlights from under the risers. Matt Cowley’s sound provides the background chatter of children and other noises at the right moments without breaking the mood.
Enhancing the mood poignantly once again, Igor Santos contributes a piano score that’s delicate and slightly ominous, portending winds of change. The composer in residence regularly makes Tampa Rep’s production music a standout in the theater scene.
Dinner With Friends’ dynamics are precisely well-executed thanks to Tampa Rep’s first-rate cast and production team, shepherded under the keen direction of Robin Gordon. They bring us on an exhilarating emotional roller coaster without screaming in our ear and making us cringe.
Instead, we enjoy something familiar while leaving with new insights.
IF YOU GO
Dinner With Friends
$25, $20 students and seniors. 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Studio Theatre in Hillsborough Community College Ybor City’s Performing Arts Building, 1411 E 11th Ave., Tampa. tamparep.org/dinner.