Dinner with Friends is a quirky but highly entertaining Off-Broadway comedy/drama by Donald Margulies. It not only won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, but a host of other awards. Locally, PlayMakers Repertory Company staged a nearly pitch-perfect presentation of this provocative meditation on food, friendship, and marriage in early 2003.

So, the current Flying Machine Theater Company production of this now-familiar script opened last weekend to sky-high expectations. The Raleigh, NC-based theatrical company, headed by Julian “J” Chachula, Jr. and Marta King, has a stellar reputation, which this disappointing presentation of Dinner with Friends will not enhance.

(In fairness, I should note here that the Saturday-night audience applauded heartily between scenes and at the final curtain. So, mine may well be a minority report.)

Director Mary K. Rowland’s decision to have the slightly older and more settled married couple, Gabe (Jerome Johnson) and Karen (Marta King), already onstage and cooking when the audience files in is interesting; but having them smooch, smooch, smooch every few minutes throughout the preshow grows increasingly wearisome. (Nobody is THAT in love, especially with a gourmet dinner to prepare and a couple of kids upstairs.) Having them smooch during scene-changes, when the actors double as stagehands, is exasperating.

If the chemistry between Johnson and King were better, all this PDA (“public display of affection,” as my favorite house mother used to say) might be more palatable. But the chemistry between King and Johnson and between Robin Monteith and J Chachula, as the younger couple Beth and Tom, for whom Karen and Gabe played matchmaker 12 years ago, is weak at best.

The show starts slowly, and the actors definitely improve in the second act. But the acting and the overacting in the first act are easy to improve upon.

Jerome Johnson is too nonchalant in his approach to his pivotal role. He lacks the charisma and the un-self-conscious virility and self-confidence to be a satisfactory Gabe. Moreover, Johnson never quite seems comfortable in Gabe’s skin, and Marta King’s performance is handicapped by the lack of chemistry between the two of them. King gets better in Act II, but Johnson’s nonchalance is fatal.

J Chachula, usually one of the Triangle’s finest actors, fails to fully explore all the dimensions of his complicated character. He settles for earnest; he settles for impassioned; he settles for self-righteous when his friends side with his wife in their marital discord. But Tom is so much more than the attitudes he strikes. Tom’s ennui is more much more than a stereotypical midlife crisis, and Chachula leaves too much of that fertile emotional ground unexplored.

Robin Monteith as Karen is, perhaps, not the best foil for Tom’s growing dissatisfaction with their marriage. She lacks the panache of the artist even the hopelessly neurotic and currently non-producing artist that Karen is supposed to be.

Scenic designer Shannon Clark does exceptionally well in creating a fully functioning kitchen on a shoestring budget, but why does the kitchen in Karen and Gabe’s current Connecticut home look exactly like the kitchen in their Martha’s Vineyard summer rental 12 years ago?

The contributions of costumer Kat Henwood, props master David Davis, and sound designer Kevin Silva, who adds children’s voices (calling from upstairs) at appropriate moments, enhance this production, which this reviewer finds fatally flawed. But a less critical audience may find this latest production of Dinner with Friends more to their taste. All I know is, 30 minutes later I was hungry again.

Flying Machine Theater Company presents Dinner with Friends Friday-Saturday, April 22-23, and 29-30, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, April 24, at 3 p.m. in Common Ground Theatre, 4815-B Hillsborough Rd., Durham, North Carolina. $15 ($10 students with ID, teachers, and seniors). 919/594-11403. Flying Machine Theater Company: http://www.flyingmachine.dreamhost.com/productions/dwf.html [inactive 6/05]. Common Ground Theatre: http://www.cgtheatre.com/.

PREVIEW: Flying Machine Theater Company: Dinner with Friends Focuses on Food, Friendship, and Romance Gone Awry

by Robert W. McDowell

Raleigh, NC-based Flying Machine Theater Company will present Dinner with Friends, a Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy by Donald Margulies, April 15-30 at the new Common Ground Theatre in Durham, NC. The show debuted at the 1998 Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville; it quickly found its way from Kentucky to the Big Apple, where it opened Off Broadway in 1999; and it won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. (Chapel Hill-based PlayMakers Repertory Company staged Dinner with Friends from Jan. 15 to Feb. 9, 2003.)

In reviewing the show’s New York production, Time Magazine claimed that “Margulies writes about relationships with such intelligence and spiky humor that his comedy-drama … becomes something quite wonderful.” The New York Times described the play as “wry and keenly observed and bathed in the unspoken sorrow that can sneak up on you in middle age.

The New York Daily News saluted Dinner with Friends as “full of life, warmth, laughs, and wisdom; and the San Francisco Examiner, reviewing a subsequent West Coast production, saluted the play as “a breezy comedy of modern manners that turns poignant and deeply affecting by its end. Margulies touches chords that resonate with a deep affecting humanity.”

Flying Machine Theater Company board president Mary K. Rowland, a Raleigh actress and director who teaches at Wake Technical Community College, will direct Dinner with Friends, which also won the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Play, the Dramatists Guild/Hull-Warriner Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award, and the American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award. The play also received a Drama Desk Award nomination.

“As a member now of the Flying Machine board,” Rowland says, “I was part of a unanimous vote to choose this play for this year’s production. We all liked the script and thought it was well written and pertinent to many people’s lives, and offered an excellent opportunity to utilize the acting talents of three board members and their longtime friend.”

When the curtain rises, Rowland says, “Gabe [Flying Machine board member Jerome Johnson] and Karen [company co-founder and board secretary Marta King] introduced their best friends Tom [Flying Machine co-founder and artistic director Julian “J” Chachula, Jr.] and Beth [Robin Monteith] 12 years ago. Now, after marriage, two kids each, and lots of shared meals and vacations for the couples, Tom is leaving Beth for a younger woman. What transpires illuminates the effect of the upheavals of life on friendships and couples amidst a background of food as nurturance and passion.

Mary Rowland says, “The long-time friendships of the actors (all UNC-G graduates, as am I) made the challenge of creating the tensions and connections between these characters a much easier task. Working within the intimacy of the Common Ground Theatre space lends itself to the production, and the sets (by Shannon Clark) are correspondingly simple and evocative. Costumes are by Katherine Henwood.” And director Mary Rowland doubles as the show’s lighting designer.

Flying Machine publicist Dina Law adds, “The actors in the play have been friends … for 21 years, ever since they met each other in college. While their theater careers have often led them down different paths, they have come together for the first time to explore this piece about long-term friendship and marriage. Each actor has performed for Flying Machine and for other Triangle theater companies.

“As long-term friends,” Law says, “they are drawing on an unusual history, long-term trust, a shared aesthetic, and the ability to push each other’s buttons both in and out of the process. This makes for an exciting and spicy artistic process that is yielding rich results….

“Other interesting aspects of the play include its intelligent and insightful dialogue, which is very appealing to the Triangle audience, as well as its colorful and creative characters. Gabe and Karen are international food writers and Beth is a painter. This is a story that could and does happen right here,” Law says.

Director Mary Rowland adds, “The audience should be [fore]warned, that if they haven’t eaten before the play, they will certainly be hungry after[wards].”

Flying Machine Theater Company presents Dinner with Friends Friday-Saturday, April 15-16, 22-23, and 29-30, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, April 17, 24, and 30, at 3 p.m. in Common Ground Theatre, 4815-B Hillsborough Rd., Durham, North Carolina. $15 ($10 students with ID, teachers, and seniors). 919/594-11403. Flying Machine Theater Company: http://www.flyingmachine.dreamhost.com/productions/dwf.html [inactive 6/05]. Common Ground Theatre: http://www.cgtheatre.com/.