Donald Margulies's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "Dinner with Friends," examines what happens to the relationships between two sets of couples when one of them divorces. Margulies creates lives many of us recognize, a mosaic of hidden emotions and flaunted passions, memories and desires both shared and repressed and dreams that come true yet elude resolution. It's a serious challenge for actors; telling this story, with its emotional minefields and bittersweet laughter, demands subtle, three-dimensional shading.
The Elden Street Players of Herndon meet the challenge with a meticulously directed and stunningly performed production. The show ends June 25.
Gabe (played by David Sher) and Karen (Susan Talbott) are shocked to discover over dinner that the marriage of best friends Beth (Ann Colly) and Tom (Todd C. Huse) is ending. Beth, on her own as Tom is away on business, is vaguely uneasy, attempting to appear engaged in the conversation until she blurts out that Tom is leaving their 12-year marriage for his travel agent. Gabe and Karen are dumbstruck. Suddenly much about their lives that they took for granted is called into question, even as they grieve along with their friend.
Tom later is enraged to learn that Beth has shared their secret, fearing it has allowed her an advantage in claiming their friends' loyalty. One can imagine the temptation to comically exploit such a situation, but Margulies goes for the emotional jugular, not the funny bone. His dialogue is sharp, and laughs spill out of the reality of recognizable reactions and occasionally bitter realizations; there are no setup-and-punch-line routines. Well, maybe one. Upon hearing that Tom describes his paramour as being "120 percent there" for him, Karen spits out, "He's into percentages now? What's the extra 20 percent?" Then, as Talbott's face registers dawning (but unexplained) understanding, the audience convulses as we imagine our own jokes. Talbott had to have already built an indelible sense of character for this subtle moment to work so well.
Colly dominates the first two scenes, as Beth breaks down and then later deals with Tom. Colly so immerses herself in the role that from a front row seat the whites of her eyes could be seen reddening as she tears up and gradually lets Beth's deep anguish flow. Minutes later, she and Huse play out an intensely dynamic scene that takes us through a range of interlocking and conflicting emotions, from indifference to rage to lust.
There's a bit of the man-woman, Venus-Mars thing going on, such as Gabe's and Karen's disparate reactions to the appalling news of Tom's affair. Gabe's instant response, "With who?" earns him a withering look from Karen, who is concerned with Beth's fragile emotional state. But director Chuck Dluhy, himself a skilled actor, doesn't allow his cast to rely on stereotypes; the four actors create fully dimensional, unique characters.
Sher capably highlights Gabe's difficulty coping with the changes Tom has wrought in their lives. Sher and Talbott delicately explore issues of trust and whether it is inevitable that the routine of daily life will overcome the delight of loving, and how to clearly see people through the haze of one's own needs and expectations. Huse keeps us from hating Tom, showing us the man's heartache over a bad marriage and the palpable renewal its end allows. It's nice to see Sher and Huse, two of Elden Street's guiding lights, sharing a stage, particularly in a poignant scene in which Gabe and Tom sense their friendship is dissolving, their lives diverging. Perhaps because the actors know each other well, they are able to share their characters' inner feelings through changes in body language and tone of voice, going beyond the written word for emotional resonance.
At the end of two hours and seven scenes, this "Dinner with Friends" seems like, well, like dinner with friends.
"Dinner with Friends" continues through June 25 at Industrial Strength Theatre, 269 Sunset Park Dr., Herndon. Showtime 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 7 p.m. Sunday, June 19 at 7 p.m. For tickets, call 703-481-5930. For information, visit www.eldenstreetplayers.org.