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Stark Naked Theatre Plays Dinner with Friends to Perfection

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The setup:

"Two couples. Four best friends. One divorce." Sounds like an ad for a chick flick. Hey, wait a minute, it was -- a 2001 TV movie starring Dennis Quaid and Andie MacDowell. The Donald Margulies play upon which the television adaptation was based, a Pulitzer Prize winner no less, has much more going for it. In Stark Naked Theatre's finely tuned hands, what begins as the dissolution of a ten-year marriage between Beth and Tom (Kim Tobin and Drake Simpson) turns into an affecting, abiding portrait of another ten-year marriage between their best friends Gabe and Karen (Philip Lehl and Shelley Calene-Black). The shift in focus from drama couple to undercover-drama couple is subtle and masterful. You don't see it coming, although you think you do.

The execution:

Yuppie foodies Gabe and Karen have their world rocked to its core when their best friends' marriage dissolves. If what they thought impregnable could be so easily knocked down, just how strong is their own relationship? Kids are involved, lies are told, lives ruined, friendships finished. Margulies spins a taut little web between the four characters, drawing them in tighter as the play proceeds, even though he reverses time at the beginning of the second act to show how Beth and Tom were introduced by matchmakers Gabe and Karen. As an added kicker, one of the characters has a deep, dark revelation that's as much fun to discover as it is for the actors to casually drop the info into our lap.

While there are numerous adult insights and comedic moments, usually revolving around cooking (a polenta lemon cake sounds particularly appetizing), the contemporary dramatic juices flow like any old-fashioned play from way back when. If you've ever been in a relationship, fleeting or protracted, some part of this will hit home. It's the interaction between the four actors that's so special, not so much the been-there-seen-that quality of the play, and Stark Naked plays this to perfection.

What a magnificent foursome to highlight the company's inaugural season in their new space: Lehl as distant, emotionless Gabe, sputtering his disapproval over Tom yet unable to quiet his own fears; Calene-Black as control-freak Karen, whose rock-ribbed judgments turn into saving grace; Tobin as loose-cannon Beth, whose "I've always been alone" confession hides at least a third life; and Simpson as hot-to-trot Tom, the good-old-boy gone to seed. The adjectives are only the icing, as it were, as these consummate pros dig in to Margulies's tasty, crisp dialogue and situations. Under Kevin Holden's direction, they're free to find all sorts of burrowed meaning inside the scenes. Holden also designed the slick wood set that serves as beach house, home, and bar -- there's a deliciously homey scent that wafts through the space at Studio 101, adding another layer to this play about family and its inevitable evolution.

The verdict:

Food can get you through only so much -- the real sustenance is between people. This play sustains.

Donald Margulies's Pulitzer Prize winner runs through March 11 at Studio 101, 1824 Spring Street. Purchase tickets online at www.straknakedtheatre.com or call 832-866-6514.

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