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Polished recipe but hardly satisfying fare

Date: 27/08/2006
Words: 500
Source: SHD
          Publication: Sun Herald
Section: S Insert
Page: 24

Darlinghurst Theatre, Potts Point. Until September 9. Tickets $28/$22. Bookings 8356 9987.

Critic's rating: 5/10

PEOPLE feel lonely even when they're in a long-term relationship. That's hardly news. But investing too much in someone else's relationship by way of compensation is no answer, says playwright Donald Margulies.

Written in 1998, the Pulitzer-Prize winning Dinner With Friends revolves around two couples. Gabe (Antony Grgas) and Karen (Rebecca Rocheford Davies) are globetrotting food writers and smugly self-absorbed.

We meet them at the dinner table, gently boring their best friend Beth (Rachel Terry) with culinary insights gained from a recent trip to Italy. Their gastronomy lesson is derailed, however, when Beth blurts out that her 12-year marriage to Tom (Blair Venn) is on the rocks. He's met another woman.

In seven scenes Margulies walks us through the fallout of Tom and Beth's break-up and the ground-shifting effect it has on Gabe and Karen. Forced to confront the hollowness at the heart of their own relationship, they come to learn that their most treasured friendship may have been self-serving.

Without unhappy lawyer Tom and flaky artist Beth to compare themselves to (and neither of them can cook), suddenly things don't look so rosy.

The misgivings of middle age, the baggage that accumulates in long-term relationships and oh, all those unspoken regrets . . . Dinner With Friends is obviously supposed to resonate with the likes of me but its Teflon-coated craft gets in the way.

Margulies writes everyday-sounding dialogue with cool precision but the men and women who emerge seem as contrived as anything you've ever seen in a TV drama. The fact that he scrupulously avoids taking anyone's side makes it no less formulaic.

Director Kim Hardwick applies a light touch and keeps things breezy. The cast ping-pong Margulies's polished dialogue smartly enough but when the crunch comes they struggle to show anything going on beneath the surface.

Opening night nerves might account for the slightly manic edge to the performances but there's a sense the play is being gently hustled to its conclusion. Busy scene changes don't help.

The strongest moments occur when the actors stop to take a breath. In a bar scene, when Tom regales Gabe with the details of his new sex life, Grgas has time to find extra weight in what has been to this point a very lightweight character.

Staring into space while Tom blusters, his brief silence expresses the feelings that surround the end of a relationship far more economically than Margulies manages in the final scene.

Dinner With Friends is a good enough play to make you aware of any shortcomings in a production. You know what you should be feeling at any given moment. This only makes the gap between knowledge and sense all the more obvious.

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