Fine Dining

The Rep Studio serves up an intimate and satisfying Dinner with Friends

Dinner with Friends, by Donald Margulies, won the Pulitzer Prize for drama last year; it's an exquisite piece of writing, and it would be hard to imagine a better production than the one at the Rep Studio Theatre. The play presents a common modern dilemma: What do you do when close friends divorce? Whose side do you take, and how does the breakup affect your own relationship? Gabe and Karen (Thom Sesma and Alison Bevan ) have had countless dinners with Beth and Tom (Mary Proctor and Brian Keeler) over the past 12 years; in fact, they're the ones who introduced them to each other. One night, as Gabe and Karen host Beth by herself, she breaks down and tells them that Tom has left her for another woman. Karen is shocked, Gabe less so. What follows is a play deceptively simple in its structure, centered around a series of meals that track the dissolution of the friendships and the marriage of Beth and Tom but the simultaneous strengthening of the bond between Karen and Gabe. Margulies perfectly captures the way married couples relate, with both private and public personae, and his examination of friendship is just as acute, suggesting that we pick our friends to reinforce our own ideas of our selves.

The cast is top-notch and, under the meticulous direction of Steven Woolf, literally never misses a beat. Every moment of each scene is played with total honesty and commitment to character; the result is a verisimilitude that is sometimes uncomfortably close to the bone. The intimacy is enhanced by set designer John Ezell's configuration of the studio space, with a large, long playing area down the middle of the room and the audience on either side.

Keeler is excellent as the duplicitous Tom, who at first appears to be a major-league bastard, the type of guy who is attracted to whatever woman is in the room. He defends his actions with what seems like self-righteous justification, but his truth is very real to him; he claims he was actually dying in his marriage, and who are we not to believe him? When we learn an unpleasant fact about Beth's past (which may or may not be true), it seems to lessen Tom's culpability; but does that mean he's not a bastard? The audience members, along with the characters, have to decide who's right, who's wrong or, indeed, whether it's even a question of right and wrong or just life.

The engaging Proctor takes Beth from victim to survivor, glowing with the happiness of a new boyfriend (Proctor accomplishes the amazing task of blushing on cue). It all comes a little too fast for Karen, and Bevan lets us see the many sides of this complex character, whose desire for control is shaken by the changes swirling around her. Sesma shows us Gabe's struggle to understand his friend as he also starts to question his own marriage. Over a last shared drink with Tom (no meal this time, just bottled water, indicating the dwindling state of their friendship), Gabe explains how it's the seemingly banal aspects of married life (which Tom felt imprisoned by) that he clings to; they help deflect the frightening prospects of mortality and loneliness. Gabe has come to a realization about his own life, but it's cost him his friend. In the quietly moving ending, Gabe is finally able to articulate his feelings to his wife; with no dinner to fuss over, Gabe and Karen confront their marriage and their lives and reconnect in a way Tom and Beth never could.

There's a new theater group in town, which is always cause for celebration; even better news is that, judging from its calling-card production, Surface Tension, the (Mostly) Harmless Theatre (the parentheses are theirs) will make good on its mission to present intelligent, socially significant new works and add a fresh voice to the St. Louis theater scene when the company's season officially begins in June.

Surface Tensions, a collection of six 10-minute plays culled mostly from the Humana Festival of New Plays in Louisville and presented last weekend, successfully showcased the company's ability to work in a wide range of tone, style and content. As the title suggests, the pieces are thematically linked, exploring what lurks inside or beneath the surface -- fear, loneliness, bigotry, desire or even a baby. The 10-minute format, at its best, sets up and resolves a well-defined conflict and takes its characters from A to Z (and sometimes back again), all within the compacted time. The best example is "The Boy Who Ate the Moon," the highlight of the evening, written by Jane Martin and directed by Robert Neblett, the artistic director of (M)HT. A lonely young man (Drew Bell, in an involving, touching performance) is convinced he's burning up from the inside and has swallowed the moon in his attempt to quench his inner fever. A nurse, played with great sensitivity by Erin Layton, realizes what he really needs -- human contact -- and gives it to him before calmly returning to work.

In "Annunciation" by Carl Morse, pregnant Melissa (Layton again) is forced to confront her bigotry when a mysterious man (Andy Neiman) comes to tell her that her baby is going to be gay. A magical twist helps with her transformation, and the last image, the visitor feeling the baby inside her kick, is touching.

Some of the pieces play more like extended skits. In the funny "A Confederacy of Monsters," written by Adam Jortner and directed by Neiman, which opens the evening, a board meeting of the titular group has been called by the Bogeyman (Ken Ferrigni) because of the public's diminishing belief in the existence of monsters. With terrorism and AIDS around, things that go bump in the night are the least of people's worries. Kenneth Pruitt makes a hilarious ghost (the kind with the sheet with two eyeholes), Mariah Howard plays a witch devoted to the cause and Jason Cannon is a vampire who has gone Hollywood. "Monsters" makes a nice bookend with the evening's closer, "Lycanthrophobia," by Matt Pelfrey, a disturbing piece about a man in a bar (Bell) who meets a stranger (Neiman), who may or may not be a werewolf. A plot twist cements the evening's theme of how what's underneath ties us all together and is more important than apparent differences.

"Tape," written by José Rivera and directed by Tijuana Ricks, is a Twilight Zone-ish piece about a man (Cannon) forced to listen to his own lies for the rest of eternity. In "Anything for You," written by Cathy Celesia, what lurks inside Lynette (Ricks) is the desire to have a lesbian affair with her best friend, Gail (a fine Wendy Bagger).

Produced on a shoestring, the evening's tech aspects are minimal, but that's the point; the focus is on the plays and the actors, a fine group of young talent, some familiar to St. Louis audiences, some brand-new. (M)HT will present two plays this summer at the A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre in Washington University's Mallinckrodt Center; they deserve the attention of St. Louis audiences.