Theatre Information

Providence Players Dinner With Friends

By • Apr 17th, 2013 • Category: Reviews, Virginia
Dinner With Friends
Providence Players: (Info) (Web)
James Lee Community Center Theater, Falls Church, VA
Through April 20th
$18/$15 Seniors, Students
Reviewed April 13th, 2013

Donald Margulies has a gift for writing realistic dialogue. His Dinner with Friends feels like one is eavesdropping on two actual couples – Tom and Beth, whose relationship is falling apart, and Gabe and Karen, who take this surprising news hard and personally. Providence Players of Fairfax has produced an enjoyable version of Dinner with Friends, although it doesn’t quite match the naturalism of Margulies’ script. Nonetheless, the design team and actors have brought enough care and energy to the task at hand to ensure that audiences will enjoy the meal.

The strengths of director Tina Thronson’s production are many. Raedun de Alba’s set design is deceptively complicated. Although each setting is simple on its own, there at least six different locations, and de Alba has managed to make each one detailed and realistic. The kitchens and bedrooms especially are perfectly decorated by Susan Kaplan & Sue Winfield, who also provided the many food-related props. Thronson makes excellent use of the environment, moving her actors around the stage in a wholly authentic way. Jimmy Gertzog’s lighting design further transports the audience with careful, individualized choices for each setting.

Thronson has assembled a quartet of appealing actors who bring animation and intensity to their roles and are especially adept at portraying the chemistry and history of each of their relationships. Each of the actors have definite moments where they shine: David P. Whitehead and Melissa Dunlap as Gabe and Karen have a sweetly teasing rapport with one another, finishing each other’s sentences and communicating by touch and glances. Their fixation on analyzing every meal is a true highlight of the evening. Michael Donahue as Tom is excellent in his first scene with his estranged wife, Beth, as he navigates the familiar terrain of Beth’s emotions with care and strategy. Jayne L. Victor, who plays Beth, is perhaps the strongest of the four in constructing a believable, heartbreaking, and yet still funny, character.

Because these four actors must carry the whole show, they and Thronson have the hefty challenge of maintaining pace, creating character arcs, and avoiding the feeling of repetition. Here is where the show runs into a bit of difficulty. While the first act gallops along, the second act gets a bit bogged down, especially in two static scenes on a patio and in a bar, which could have used more imagination in the staging and atmosphere. Additionally, the actors tend to push a bit too hard throughout the evening, going overboard on the comedy and exaggerating their reactions. For example, Whitehead and Dunlap had repeated and large reactions to the supposed perfect state of their union, intimating secrets or a disaster in the making, that proved unfounded and unsupported by the play’s end. Thronson would have better served the play by guiding the actors to subtlety and nuance, which would have enabled them to present more fully formed and less caricatured roles. Conversely, Thronson and costume designer Robbie Snow (whose work in the rest of the play is admirable) also missed an opportunity where broader humor would have actually have been welcome by choosing not to provide radically different looks for the flashback scene.

Margulies’ play requires quiet, real-life exchanges, with the humor coming from the familiar and from the details of the characters. Thronson’s production relies too much on broad, presentational acting and, therefore, lacks the feeling that the audience has quietly removed the fourth wall and is spying on the life within. Rather than an intimate Dinner With Friends, this production, while entertaining and possessing many successful aspects, feels more like a convention banquet, although with better food.

Disclaimer: Providence Players provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.

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