Arts

Review: ‘Dinner with Friends’ Awes With Deep Insights at the Zephyr Theatre

(L-R) Jack Esformes, Marieh Delfino, Leith Burke, and Amy Motta in "Dinner with Friends" at the Zephyr Theatre in Los Angeles, CA. Photo by Kerttu Karon

Few plays can ingeniously simplify the very complex human sentiments and motivations at stake with respect to our romantic relationships, friendships, and even ourselves. The 2000 Pulitzer Prize Winner in Drama, Dinner with Friends by Donald Margulies, is a play that does just that, especially when in the hands of dedicated personnel. Suffice it to say, the intimate Zephyr Theatre in Los Angeles boasts a well-crafted production directed and produced by Peter Allas which cogently delivers the sobering themes of the work, leaving audience members with talking points for days to come.

As told through both a present-day and retrospective lens, two best-friend couples banter, argue, and have earnest discussions, which reveal lurking truths about the human condition where the one and only antagonist is change.

Peter Allas is the director and producer of Zephyr Theatre’s production of Dinner with Friends, which runs through Sunday, April 28th. Photo courtesy of Peter Allas

Gabe and Karen, a compatible married pair of food editors who recently trekked to Italy, are hosting their close friend Beth, an artist, who seems misleadingly calm before dolefully divulging that her husband Tom, a lawyer, is having an unfaithful dalliance with a travel agent named Nancy. Of course, Gabe and Karen are shocked and immediately sympathetic towards Beth; however, as we soon learn, revealing the bombshell in this manner wasn’t the plan according to an exasperated Tom, who feared that by being the first to tell her narrative, Beth would preemptively earn the biased support of their pals. After a series of hot-blooded exchanges, the audience observes the clean-slated foursome 12 years into the past at Martha’s Vineyard, particularly when Tom and Beth become initially acquainted, before returning to the present and aftermath of the affair.

Without each of the cast members being fully in tune with their characters, this version of Dinner with Friends wouldn’t resonate as poignantly as it does. For instance, Amy Motta, who depicts Beth and her journey spanning grief and relief, is terrific at emoting the onset of outpouring emotion regarding the infidelity of beau Tom, played by Leith Burke, who thereafter vindicates his reputation as being one unanimously deserving of condemnation. After all, there is usually more than one side to every story. When the strife-ridden couple engages in a scorching, time-stopping verbal duel in the bedroom about their disparate perspectives, Motta, whose lip quivers due to an overwhelming agitation, exemplifies a woman seeing the disintegration of her marriage before her eyes. Burke, in comparison, grippingly symbolizes a liberated, albeit still frustrated, man who is fueled by righteousness and the clarity of choosing to be with somebody who actively appreciates him more.

Beth and Tom also spend time processing their drastic life alterations with their respective same-sex friends, which intriguingly highlights how men and women intrinsically process events differently. In two memorable scenes with Gabe, portrayed by Jack Esformes, Tom elaborates on his reasons for uprooting himself and the newly shaped conception he has of himself in relation to his newfound girlfriend. As predominantly a listener, Esformes — in striking contrast to his obstinate onstage wife Karen — informs his Gabe with a rationality that is buttressed by peace-keeping scruples even if the fear of loss is the prime incentive. Gabe understands why Tom feels impelled to recast his life, but it’s not an urge that he (Gabe) would act upon because reacting constructively is a better alternative to devastating the landscape of one’s existence.

(Clockwise) Jack Esformes, Marieh Delfino, Amy Motta, and Leith Burke in Dinner with Friends at the Zephyr Theatre in Los Angeles, CA. Photo by Kerttu Karon

At the root of it all is that long-term relationships will mature beyond the honeymoon stage as adult responsibilities encroach. Is it wrong for people to resign themselves to this fact and be comforted by the perceived contraction of infinite choices? Or should the elusive, carefree stages of life be continually renewed? In any case, this realization, at least early on, can be unnerving.

And it can be even more distressing for those like Karen, rendered by Marieh Delfino, who finds herself being swayed more so by her principled outlook than an introspective reflection of what Beth and Tom’s disarray — and the causes behind it — means for her and Gabe. The path of least resistance points us in the direction of picking a single premise where our bullet points and conclusions flow down from; certainly, this is the case for Karen who rebuffs Tom’s insistence on sharing his point of view. Delfino rivetingly gets across how people, in familial quarters, will fight hard — unambiguously or unconsciously — to protect themselves by assigning preconceived identifiers onto people. In an illuminating dialogue with Motta’s Beth, Delfino’s expressions underscore how much more reassuring it is to have our loved ones in an undisturbed stasis; in other words, the second there’s a divergence is when we respond unfavorably, though we might convince ourselves the intent is justified.

Undoubtedly, Zephyr Theatre’s Dinner with Friends wouldn’t pack such a raw punch if not for the naturalism of Motta, Burke, Esformes, and Delfino who are the consummate quartet of professionals, impacting attendees just as profoundly with the vividness of their body language as they do with their lines. Allas’ contributions, too, are on full display given the measured pacing which is conscientious of the organic ebbs and flows within the story, bowling over spectators when tensions inevitably burst and allowing moments to breathe when the characters are summoned by their own epiphanies.

(L-R) Amy Motta, Marieh Delfino, Jack Esformes, and Leith Burke in Dinner with Friends at the Zephyr Theatre in Los Angeles, CA. Photo by Kerttu Karon

Furthermore, the crew merits plaudits for equipping the oftentimes solemn setting with conducive elements. Scenic designer Brad Bentz has fashioned a slice of the quintessential domestic kitchen in not one, but two locales; Chris King Wong’s props give Bentz’s set a relatable middle-class presentation; Mylette Nora adeptly signifies transformation through her costumes; and, lighting and sound designer Matt Richter pulls enthralling debates concerning relationships and friendships into unobstructed focus.

Margulies’ Dinner with Friends is as acclaimed as it is because it takes the unassuming mental picture of the everyday and delves far beneath the dinner table and into the psyches that underlie romantic and platonic attachments, specifically when the veil of social expectations has been removed. Underneath the covers, repressed emotions such as dread, sadness, and even panic might lie in waiting. Perhaps it’s because the ineluctable changes we experience become at odds with a fixed image of ourselves. But maybe the antidote to such an existential crisis is to evolve our self-concepts in tandem with the metamorphosizing seasons of life. Zephyr Theatre’s production powerfully illustrates the utility of these thoughts amid a broader discussion.

Donald Margulies’ Dinner with Friends plays through Sunday, April 28th at the Zephyr Theatre. For additional details and tickets to the production, visit zephyrtheatre.com.

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