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The Dream That Never Dies

The Dream That Never Dies Mike Bitzenhofer

Mike Bitzenhofer

Christopher White - published on 02/27/14

As we watch the Pulitzer-Prize winning “Dinner with Friends,” why do we cheer for Gabe and Karen to stick it out?

“I hope you never experience the loneliness I’ve felt,” Tom tells Gabe, his best friend, after trying to explain why he’s leaving his wife, Beth, after twelve years of marriage. Tom and Beth and Gabe and his wife, Karen, have been best friends for what now seems like an eternity. In fact, it was Gabe and Karen who introduced Tom and Beth to one another. Their kids have grown up together as playmates, the two couples have vacationed together every summer up on Martha’s Vineyard, and their lives have been so intertwined that any change in this routine is both unwelcome and disorienting. But when Beth informs Gabe and Karen that Tom has been cheating on her with his travel agent, over a decade of loyalty and friendship begins to crumble.

Dinner with Friendsby Donald Margulies won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and is a probing exploration of marriage, friendship, and fidelity. This new off-Broadway staging by the Roundabout Theatre Company—barely a decade after its original off-Broadway mounting—demonstrates that despite some portrayals in pop culture, marriage is a dream that refuses to die.

Gabe is a professional food writer and Karen serves as his editor. At the show’s opening they’ve just returned from an extravagant culinary tour of Italy, and while they’ve been married for over a decade, they describe their trip to Beth with such excitement that one might be tempted to believe they’ve just returned from their honeymoon. Meanwhile, when Beth breaks down into tears over the dessert course, we realize that not only are they unprepared for the news of Tom and Beth’s divorce, they’re ill-equipped to even respond to heartache at all. After all those dinners and all those vacations, their friendship has never ventured into the space of vulnerability. That might reveal too much. And then without any warning, it does.

Tom, meanwhile, explains to Gabe that nothing will change. They will still see one another’s children grow up together, laugh and cry at their respective weddings, still enjoy one another’s company at dinner parties–all that they’ve been used to doing as best friends. Only now, Beth won’t be in the picture. But even more, Tom thinks Gabe should revel in his happiness. He’s in the best shape of his life, his new lover has revitalized him, and all that hidden sadness from his marriage with Beth has been brought to the surface, dealt with, and spurred him on to happiness. Or so he hopes.

Yet perhaps what’s most scary about all of this, for Gabe and Karen, is that Tom and Beth’s divorce forces them to examine their own marriage. Has their friendship with Beth and Tom only been a substitute or a distraction from having serious conversations about their own relationship issues? Why does Gabe—who makes a living for his ability to articulate things well—have nothing to say when Karen wants to discuss the two of them? And what does it say about Karen, who has tried to substitute Beth and Tom for her own family members, when she realizes that they’re just as flawed and broken as the family she’s trying to escape from?

Jeremy Shamos is the standout in the cast as the affable, though occasionally awkward, Gabe. He’s a man steeled by optimism and anchored in his love for Karen, who is clearly out of his league. Marin Hinkle is a strong-minded, quick-tongued Karen, who still possesses a youthful love for Gabe. Her desire for order and harmony is rattled by the divorce of Tom and Beth, and her inability to control the situation only further complicates her own ability to be content. Gabe and Karen possess all the dynamism of a power couple enjoying modest financial and personal success and Shamos and Hinkle play these parts to perfection.

Darren Pettie is a likeable Tom, an earnest fellow who feels more alive at age forty-two than he did at twenty-four. Heather Burns offers a decent, though sometimes flat, performance as Beth, a wannabe artist whose own sense of self is never fully achieved. Directed by Pam MacKinnon, this production is familiar in all the right ways that marital drama is know to be, but at the same time, unsettling in it’s commonality.     

Why does it bother us that Tom and Beth don’t work out? And why are we cheering for Gabe and Karen to stick it out? Common wisdom tells us that we should simply let individuals pursue whatever path will lead to their own happiness and satisfaction. But the allure of fidelity offers itself as the possible antidote to all that loneliness that Tom tries so desperately to escape. Dinner with Friends reveals that while marriage is not always a feast, it still is something can be savored throughout its various courses.  

Dinner with Friends is playing a limited run through April 13, 2014 at the Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre. Directed by Pam MacKinnon and starring Jeremy Shamos, Marin Hinkle, Darren Pettie, and Heather Burns.

Christopher Whiteis the Director of Education and Programs for the Center for Bioethics and Culture Network, author of Renewal: How a New Generation of Faithful Priests and Bishops is Revitalizing the Catholic Church, and theatre critic for Aleteia. He is the 2013-2014 Robert Novak Fellowship Award Winner and writes frequently on matters of bioethics, public policy, and theatre. He lives in New York City.

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