Gabe and Karen just got married. She asks her co-worker and friend Beth over, and he invites his college buddy Tom over too. Tom and Beth hit it off, fall in love and eventually get married. Four friends, two marriages, and a lifetime of fun and shared experience to look forward to. Everything is perfect.
Twelve years later, Gabe and Karen get divorced. Suddenly, everything is not perfect. Far from it, in fact, and that’s the situation in which Donald Margulies’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Dinner With Friends,” takes place. The Penobscot Theatre Company’s production of the intense, intelligent drama opens in previews this Wednesday, and director Nathan Halvorson and actors AJ Mooney, Arthur Morison, Jeri Misler and Christopher Berger are knee-deep in the inner machinations of the four characters.
Though on the surface it appears to be a drama about divorce, the true issue at the heart of the play is friendship.
“It’s not called ‘Dinner With Two Couples.’ It’s called ‘Dinner With Friends,’ and I think that’s really what the play is all about,” said Halvorson. “Marriages are friendships too. I know my parents had another couple they were friends with, and they and all the kids all did everything together. If they got divorced, I can’t imagine what would happen. It would change everything.”
The reflection of your own marriage in another couple’s marriage is a powerful thing. And the friendships that develop over the years can crumble, if one of those marriages falls apart, leaving lots of uncertainty.
“There’s no simple answer in any of it. There’s a lot of gray area,” said Misler, who plays the blunt, literal Beth. “You tend to put on this face for your friends and family, like ‘Everything’s great! You’re great, and that makes me feel great, and we’re all just great.’ But who knows what goes on behind closed doors? When one of the facades falls apart, like it does with Gabe and Karen, it brings everything else into question.”
It would be easy to play the blame game on certain characters, when infidelity, threats and angry outbursts are part of the action of the play. But all the actors agreed that judgment calls aren’t really in order.
“If I myself look at my character, then no, I don’t really like this guy. He does some not-so-great things,” said the New York-based Berger, who plays Gabe. “But really, he’s not the bad guy. No one is the bad guy, in the end. What happens, happens.”
“The core differences between the two couples is what makes Gabe and Karen leave each other, and what keeps Tom and Beth together,” said Mooney, who plays the vulnerable, volatile Karen. “Some people are willing to work it out, and some are not. You have to make that decision — are we going to keep at it, or are we going to call it off — and that’s kind of outside of the realm of a judgment call.”
Halvorson and his four actors relish the opportunity to dive into such vibrant dialogue, and such well-drawn characters. A play like “Dinner With Friends” allows them to flex their acting chops.
“We so rarely get to do plays like this. The great thing about small casts is that you really get to sink your teeth into each character. You have to fully realize each moment, or the whole play falls apart. And they’ve succeeded,” said Halvorson. “People will get to see some of our regulars in a light that they’ve never seen. Arthur Morison as Tom is a revelation in this. He’s the moral center of the play. He’s really incredible in it.”
While the play does take place among upper-middle-class Connecticut yuppies, Halvorson believes that the strength of the text and the gritty reality of the situation transcends any disconnect there might be between a Bangor audience and the situational aspects of the play. It’s an adult drama, about adults dealing with an adult crisis. A penthouse apartment in Manhattan is just one of the venues in which such a crisis unfolds — though the set designed by Sarah Bearline, on loan from Yale University for this production, is stark and striking, with movable panels revealing just a sofa, bed or table as the center for the action.
“It’s not about wealth or location. Those things figure into it, but the goal is that people will have no choice but to say ‘Yes, I hear myself in that person,’” said Halvorson. “I think people want to be stimulated. And I think Bangor audiences are a lot more open than you’d expect. I thought ‘Tale of the Allergist’s Wife’ was a stretch, but it turned out to be one of our biggest hits ever.”
And lest you think that “Dinner” is kind of a bummer, and not something to which you’d want to take, say, a hot date, keep in mind that it’s a realistic drama, and that it’s as much about how people relate to one another as it is about a marriage falling apart.
“There’s a lot of hope in it too, and it’s very funny in places,” said Berger. “It’s more about friendship than about couples. How do we see ourselves, when our friends go through these incredibly difficult and important life changes?”
“What I love about this play is that every person that sees it can say, ‘I’ve said those words.’ Everyone has talked that way to his or her girlfriend or husband,” said Mooney. “It’s very real.”
“Dinner With Friends” opens in previews at 7 p.m. March 18 and 19, and opens at 8 p.m. Friday, March 20, at the Bangor Opera House. Additional performances are set for March 21- 22 and March 26-29. For tickets, call 942-3333, or visit the box office at the Bangor Opera House. For more information, visit www.penobscottheatre.org