Gabe and Karen are happily married foodies living in Connecticut. Their world is rocked when the couple they consider to be their closest friends stuns them with the news that they are getting divorced.
The plot to Donald Magulies’ four-character play, which in 2000 won a slew of awards, including a Pulitzer Prize, is that simple. Unfortunately, it can be that tiresome, too.
The vast majority of faults in the Penobscot Theatre Company’s production are the playwright’s. Margulies’ characters act more like they are in middle school than middle age. It also is never clear whether he was trying to skewer or to illuminate the self-absorbed lives of these suburban New Yorkers summering on Martha’s Vineyard.
Director Nathan Halvorson wrings every ounce of laughter from the script, at times turning “Dinner With Friends” into an update on the lives of the people who populated the TV sitcom “Friends” for so many years. Last week, that tack seemed to be a hit with most of the audience on opening night.
The most memorable thing about the production, however, is its look.
The scenic design by Sarah Pearline, a graduate student at the Yale School of Drama, and PTC’s Technical Director Andrew Frodahl, who did the lighting design, create a rich, lush palette that is as visually scrumptious as the food the characters almost constantly talk about and consume.
Pearline’s sliding black panels make the many set changes appear effortless. Frodahl’s pink and orange sunset in the second act seems stunningly real. The perfection of the set and lights stands in sharp contract to the characters’ foibles.
Arthur Morison and Jeri Misler, local actors who appear frequently at PTC, portray Gabe and Karen. They are so comfortable together onstage that they sometimes really appear to be married. Morison is best in Gabe’s most befuddled moments, unsure of how to reassure his insecure spouse and confused at the boorish behavior of the man who has been his best friend at college.
Misler matches his performance. The actress is at her best when portraying Karen’s contradictory nature — flighty as a butterfly on the surface but, in truth, as solidly grounded as her husband. The actress also subtly conveys that although Karen seems dumbfounded by her friends’ breakup, she was so caught up in her own life that she never really paid any attention to anyone else’s.
Tom, the husband who leaves Beth for a younger woman, should be the villain of the piece. New York-based actor Christopher Berger, however, portrays him as such a charming cad there’s no way to blame him for the couple’s problems. Berger’s Tom was never the guy Gabe and Karen wanted him to be and the joy he takes in his midlife crisis is infectious. He’s the guy the audience wants to share dinner with.
Local actress AJ Mooney plays Beth and for the first time on the PTC stage she seems uncomfortable in her character’s skin. Perhaps, it’s because she is a shade too old for the part or because she was miscast as the woman who is able to spread her wings only after her husband leaves her. Mooney radiates too much strength to live in the shadow of anyone the way Beth feels she lived in Tom’s shadow for so many years.
The laughs director Halvorson mines from “Dinner With Friends” may please theatergoers who enjoy situation comedies. Others may wish that Scott R.C. Levy, PTC’s producing artistic director, had served up a marital farce to chase winter away rather than this mediocre meditation on matrimony.
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IF YOU GO
What: “Dinner With Friends,” by Donald Margulies
Who: Penobscot Theatre Company
Where: Bangor Opera House
When: Thursday through Sunday
For more: 942-3333, www.penobscottheatre.org