Karen and Gabe and Beth and Tom the dramatis personae of the PlayMakers Repertory Company’s upcoming Triangle premiere production of Dinner with Friends by Donald Margulies are two Connecticut couples who thought that they would grow old and fat together, zestfully consuming Karen’s gourmet cooking and delighting in each other’s company. But internationally known food writers Karen and Gabe, just returned from their latest trip to Italy, and their best friends of the last 12 years, artist Beth and lawyer Tom, have a different destiny.

Isn’t it amazing how just a dash of marital infidelity can spoil the whole stew? And isn’t it terrifying how a heretofore unsuspected betrayal in your best friends’ martial relationship can make you start questioning whether your own martial relationship is as bullet-proof as you always thought it was?

“There’s a really palpable human heart that’s beating at the center of this play,” says PRC associate artist Drew Barr, who will stage Dinner with Friends in the Paul Green Theatre. “So, I really respond to that. I’m a huge fan of Donald Margulies,” who also is the author of Collected Stories and Sight Unseen, two fine plays that have already made successful Triangle premieres.

Drew Barr previously directed recent outstanding PRC productions of Wit, Side Man, and Violet, A Musical all of which made some Triangle theater critic’s 10-best list. “From the very first reading [of Dinner with Friends],” Barr says, “I just
admired the subtlety and humor and depths of understanding that [Donald
Margulies] brought to the lives of these people. There’s so much wit and humor and honesty in [Dinner with Friends] that it’s hard to read it and not get caught up in that and want to find out more [about] it.

“What I have grown to like and admire about the play even more,” Barr adds, “is the more we’ve worked on this play, the more it keeps revealing about the lives of the characters Tom [PRC company member Ray Dooley], Beth [guest artist Jessica K. Peterson], Karen [PRC associate artist Tandy Cronyn], Gabe [PRC company member Kenneth P. Strong] and also what the play reveals about itself. The play knows more than us (the audience), the play is always a step ahead of us. The play masterfully anticipates how the audience responds to what’s happening; and in the next scene, that response is challenged by what the characters do or say.”

Barr adds, “Karen and Gabe are married, and Karen is an expert chef. She is somebody who has great appreciation for the fine things in life. She likes things done a particular way. She likes food presented a particular way, and she certainly likes it prepared a particular way.

“Gabe … is a good husband and a good father,” Barr says. “He is a writer, somebody who really enjoys life and loves taking care of people. He’s funny, warm, and smart. He doesn’t talk much about his feelings. Perhaps, he keeps a lot of stuff bottled up inside of him.”

Barr claims, “Beth imagines herself to be a bit of a free spirit. She’s an artist or she’s trying to become an artist. She’s described at times as a bit high strung and a little insecure, perhaps.

“Tom,” Barr says, “is a lawyer and a man who kind of rebels against the role he’s found himself in as husband and father, but he is also described as a devoted family man, a good father, and a loving husband. But we see him kind of throw that aside in an effort to reconnect to a little bit more of his younger self, his carefree, youthful self.”

Staging such a play on the thrust stage of the Paul Green Theatre presents a host of challenges to director Drew Barr and his creative team, which includes scenic designer Narelle Sissons (assisted by Robin Vest), costume designer Kim Sorenson, lighting designer Mary Louise Geiger, and composer/sound designer Anthony Reimer.

Barr notes, “This play goes to several different locations, and that would appear to make certain naturalistic demands on the staging. The Paul Green Theatre challenges the director and designers to find solutions that surpass the naturalistic representation of life on stage. It made us start thinking about how people kind of live their lives in boxes and how we take comfort in the boxes that we build around us to protect ourselves from feeling alone in the world.

“That felt appropriate in this play,” Barr says, “where the breakup of a relationship that’s part of the box that these people put themselves into falls apart. That breaks those walls down and exposes those people to the elements of life in a way that they haven’t been exposed in some time.”

Barr develops the box idea as a theatrical metaphor. Characters strip down to the most meaningful objects in their lives, he says. “A kitchen table and a dining room table and a bed become the major objects that these people live their lives around,” Barr explains. “They take on totemic significance. It is very much dining room table as altar.”

Theater critics and audiences alike love playwright Donald Margulies and his Off-Broadway hit Dinner with Friends, which won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Time Magazine says Margulies “writes about relationships with such intelligence and spiky humor that his comedy-drama … becomes something quite wonderful.”

The New York Times describes Dinner with Friends as “wry and keenly observed and bathed in the unspoken sorrow that can sneak up on you in middle age,” and the New York Daily News agrees that this captivating comedy/drama is “full of life, warmth, laughs and wisdom.”

The San Francisco Examiner calls Dinner with Friends 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.”

“‘Dinner with Friends’ is entertainment as succulent as it is sobering,” writes New York Magazine theater critic and resident curmudgeon John Simon. Elsewhere, Simon says, “Margulies is a master of observing what might seem old hat with fresh eyes, hearing it with fresh ears. When the jealousy-racked Karen wonders about Beth’s long-standing infidelity, ‘We saw them practically every weekend in those days; when would she have had time for an affair?’ Gabe answers, ‘I don’t know, during the week?’ This is funny … but with an underscoring of wistfulness.”

PlayMakers Repertory Company presents Dinner with Friends Wednesday-Saturday, Jan. 15-18, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Jan. 19, at 2 p.m.; Tuesday-Saturday, Jan. 21-25, 28-Feb. 1, and Feb. 4-8, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Jan. 26 and Feb. 2 and 9, at 2 p.m. in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art at UNC-Chapel Hill. $9-$27 ($34 Jan. 18 opening-night gala). 919/962-PLAY (7529). http://www.playmakersrep.org/dinnerpage.html.