Dinner With Friends

Goodman Theatre

There’s reason to ask whether the institution of marriage is fatally flawed. Established at a time when a woman’s job was raising a man’s children, when the only secure way of transferring wealth was a legalized kinship structure, and when people died at 45, does it make any sense now? Certainly it’s a challenge to maintain a contemporary American family however broadly defined, though whether because morals have deteriorated or society has evolved depends on whether you ask Pat Robertson or Betty Friedan. Either way, domestic life offers plenty of serious issues, but Donald Margulies’s glib treatment of them in Dinner With Friends just raises another question: did it win a Pulitzer for the same reason University of Chicago economists are always winning Nobels, because it validates the status quo?

Dinner With Friends shows how the collapse of Beth and Tom’s marriage affects Karen and Gabe’s. It’s true that couples become invested in each other’s success and are hurt–and often enraged–by the news of failure. A cynic might suggest there’s a gigantic conspiracy to pretend marriages can work. But more likely the anger is a way of expressing fear: how will I stand it if this painful thing happens to me? Still, this observation isn’t fresh or penetrating enough to sustain an entire evening.

Perhaps Margulies knows this, because he glances briefly at another, more complicated truth: that friends who stand in for family are as apt to betray and disappoint as real family members. People close enough to love you are close enough to hurt you. Or as Beth tells Karen, “Congratulations: you’ve managed to create a family as fucked-up and fallible as the one you were born with.” Families of any sort confer obligation as well as privilege, and where there’s duty there are always shirkers.

This intriguing notion might explain why the most satisfactory scenes have the least to do with the play’s ostensible topic. Nothing interesting gets said when Beth or Tom hashes over their marriage with the other couple. But when Tom sits down with Gabe or Beth with Karen, the minuet of “sibling” expectation and disappointment is precisely danced. These scenes address a problem more poignant than a wife’s refusal to provide a hand job at the movies, the gravamen of Tom’s complaint about his marriage: people create expectations of others based on what they need rather than what others can give. Such interactions also suggest the complex ways in which we count on others to both reflect and distort us, like mirrors in a fun house.

The scenes about holding together a marriage, however, are banal and tired–not least because they barely conceal Margulies’s underlying argument: the problem with modern life is those damned autonomous women. Though Tom leaves Beth for another woman, his coup de grace, delivered on the way out the door, is that he always thought her claim to be an artist was nonsense. Then Margulies makes sure we know Tom is right: when Beth finally meets the right man, she’s so completely fulfilled by her love for him that she stops painting entirely. Meanwhile Tom finds a woman who’s “there for him 120 percent,” a woman whose career as a travel agent can be swapped for one as a nutritionist without missing a single morning of sex in the shower–a subordinate if not a servant.

Beth is made to look ridiculous whenever she’s on her own, whether dancing by herself at Gabe and Karen’s wedding or pursuing her “neopsychotic” painting. Karen avoids the same fate by never being on her own. Apparently she and Gabe are able to sustain their marriage by dint of being two half people, finishing each other’s boring sentences and having no interests outside of food and kids. Margulies seems to be saying that a marriage can survive only at the expense of the two people in it. If that’s true, why bother? Maybe he thinks men are better off when they sacrifice exciting sex to achieve security the way Gabe does–and he simply doesn’t notice or care what women are asked to sacrifice.

The play’s weaknesses–the predictable arc of every encounter, the lack of suspense, the static take on married life–are exacerbated by the Goodman Theatre’s production. What tension there is between the play’s two views of marriage–prison cell versus safe haven–can be sustained only if they’re presented with equal credibility, but director Steve Scott has inadvertently tipped the scale toward the Gabe-and-Karen side by miscasting Suellen Burton in the pivotal role of Beth. Burton’s performance is gratingly false: she doesn’t communicate genuine betrayal, bewilderment, resentment, or liberation. James Krag fits a bit more comfortably into his role as Tom, but his approach goes heavy on the smarmy and untrustworthy. Scott Jaeck’s Gabe is so obviously good and decent and thoughtful and loving that we’re left to infer there’s no problem with marriage at all–it’s just that Tom is a fatuous dick. It might have been interesting to see Jaeck play Tom, for he could have given the character’s restlessness a believable and persuasive face. Instead Tom ends up a straw man, making Gabe’s mild frustration with his marriage seem nothing more than a step on the path to righteousness. Mary Beth Fisher manages Karen’s officiousness well enough, but she’s too strong to be the half person Margulies created and too smart to deliver lines that are sitcom stupid.

It’s possible, though, that the problem is not the lines but their delivery. Margulies’s work is a souffle, easily collapsed by production errors: his brilliant Sight Unseen comes off like a tired Catskills routine when not directed perfectly. Perhaps a more simpatico Beth and Tom and a less colorless Gabe and Karen would have offered fresh insights into marriage. But as it stands, you’re better off spending your time having–well, you know.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Liz Lauren.