Dinner and a Morass

Karen and Gabe are living the good life. Though middle-aged and decidedly frumpy, they have everything they ever yearned for back when they were Reagan-era yuppies: cool jobs, a Pottery Barn chic crib, a summer home on "the vineyard," and two screaming kids who stay conveniently off stage. But when their best friends suddenly announce their impending divorce, Karen and Gabe find themselves experiencing upper-middle-class existential angst. Lost and scared, they ponder life-changing questions such as whether the Shiraz is too "stringent," and how the heck they will manage to stay together "through the baseline wretchedness" that "all marriages go through."

Donald Margulies's Pulitzer Prize-winning Dinner with Friends opened in Paris before it did in New York City, but his story about two Connecticut couples who journey through the aftershocks of divorce seems utterly American, especially as directed by Pam MacKinnon at the Alley Theatre. The four characters who occupy this well-off world all have achieved the American dream, only to land in middle age where they discover the ugliness that lies beneath the glossy veneer. Surprise, surprise: All the cozy comforters in the world won't make a marriage bed burn.

Each couple represents a familiar type. Karen (Lynne Wintersteller) and Gabe (Andrew Polk) are perfect in just about every way. Their dinners are to die for. They cook lamb and risotto for a casual, shuffle-around-in-your-socks meal. Their country kitchen, complete with a stainless-steel refrigerator, is gorgeous. They don't have affairs, they adore their kids, and they spend their late nights curled up together on the couch, drinking lovely glasses of wine and having thoughtful discussions about themselves and their friends.

At the other end of the spectrum are Beth (Claudia Fielding) and Tom (Gregory Northrop). Self-involved to the point of absurdity, these two reptiles are everything their "best friends" are not. Beth is a true dilettante. She spends her days painting bad pictures in a backyard studio that her rich lawyer husband built. She doesn't cook or clean, and knows so little about her mate that when he announces he's leaving her, it comes as a complete shock. Tom is the nastiest sort of ladies' man. He's involved with a "travel agent" because she gives him her "undivided" attention. Ever the man-child, when he discovers that Beth has told Karen and Gabe about their breakup, he rushes over to tell his side of the story.

Karen finds Tom's behavior "tacky" and stomps off to bed, leaving the two men alone to argue about the pros and cons of married life. These rap sessions are the strongest of the production, if mostly by default: When all four actors are on stage, they rarely ignite a fire. It is nearly impossible to imagine these characters being friends, let alone best friends. Only Tom and Gabe create anything close to a believable friendship, which slowly unravels as each man reveals his own ideas about marriage.

Beth, like Tom, also finds a new love. After disappearing, she turns up for lunch one day, months after the divorce, looking better than ever, arguing that breaking up was the best thing that ever happened to her. Meanwhile, Gabe and Karen are still together; they hang on to each other in their charming cedar-paneled summer house on the vineyard, where they read and talk and gaze at each other, puzzling over the loneliness of marriage. They pull back the covers in unconscious unison and lie down in their quaint antique bed to hash out the painful truth about the dull bottom of marriage: "It's what happens when practical matters outweigh abandon."

This middle-of-the-road angst is ripe with potential sadness, even elegance. But this production, despite its gorgeous set by Neil Patel (who designed the New York production) and its dappled, lonely lighting by Rui Rita, fails to realize much of that potential. These characters seem to talk at each other rather than with each other. Only Polk's angry, earnest Gabe finds a way into the tenderness and loneliness of his character. All the others sound like myopic babies who need, more than anything, some perspective. They're living the good life and don't even know it.