Director Brooke L. Howell and her cast of four have a lot on their plates in "Dinner with Friends," Donald Margulies's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama. But it's the audience that savors the treat in the earnest production now in an all-too-brief run from Hard Bargain Players.

What seems on the surface to be a study of one couple's dissolution and the effect it has on their closest friends yields more than that under Howell's gently probing guidance. Her actors provide subtly shaded portraits of characters coping with the consequences that time, expectations and desire have on marriage and friendship.

The nuances of everyday reality are brought out in stark contrast to the idealized versions living in their heads and, perhaps, in many of the audience members' heads. Yuppies Gabe (Michael Mortensen) and Karen (Lynn Thorne) are shocked to discover over dinner that the marriage of best friends Beth (Karen Kleyle) and Tom (Neil Twohig) is ending. Tom, who is away on business this night, has deserted his marriage for his travel agent, Beth informs her dumbstruck hosts.

Karen's reaction is swift and damning. "You spend your entire life with someone and it turns out that person, the one person you completely entrusted your fate to, is an impostor," she rages. But Gabe is initially more reserved, offering: "But it can't be as simple as that. It never is."

And, of course, he is right. But even Gabe soon finds the changes his pal Tom has wrought in all their lives too much to bear, even as Tom eventually appears less the monster and more of a co-victim in a marriage that may have been made for all the wrong reasons. Having cut the 12-year cords that have bound them, Beth and Tom soon adjust to new lives, leaving Karen and Gabe to cope with such issues as how much another person can be trusted, whether or not it is inevitable that the mundane living of daily lives will overcome the delight of loving, and whether it is possible to truly understand people when they are viewed through the haze of one's own needs and expectations.

Margulies has provided multi-faceted characters, and Howell's cast explores their dimensions with piquant performances, keeping the story moving nimbly. It is quite funny, in a Seinfeld-esque sort of way, as each character's self-absorption seemingly elevates such issues as the merits of the wine they're drinking or what the gourmet couple Gabe and Karen have made for dessert to the same level of importance as the disruption in their lives and self-images. There are even a few lines that might be at home in a Neil Simon comedy, such as when Tom describes his new girlfriend as being "120 percent there" for him, provoking Karen to ask: "He's into percentages now? What's the extra 20 percent?"

Most of the action centers on male-female interaction, but the men and the women have separate moments together. Particularly poignant is a scene where Gabe and Tom quietly realize their friendship is dissolving, with both Mortensen and Twohig underplaying and holding back the conflicting emotions the recognition generates until it builds into a palpable but unspoken presence. The women have a similar scene, but it is less successful. Margulies has given Karen a judgmental, controlling streak and Thorne highlights it to such a degree that there is relief and not sadness when the slightly ditzy Beth confronts her about it.

Another flaw comes in a flashback scene that begins the second act. The actors do not calibrate their performances to peel 12 years away, and it's not clear for a while that we have all gone back in time.

But overall this is a solid cast performing a thought-provoking play in the woodsy amphitheatre at Accokeek.

"Dinner with Friends" is performed by Hard Bargain Players at The Amphitheatre at Hard Bargain Farm, 2001 Bryan Point Road, Accokeek. Showtime Friday and Saturday is 8 p.m., with the production concluding with an 8 p.m. show on June 25. For reservations, call 301-645-0001. For reservations or information, visit www.hbplayers.org.