I reviewed Threshold Rep’s first show in Charleston at Memminger Auditorium in 2010. Fast-forward a year and a half, and Dinner With Friends closes Threshold’s first season in their new space on Society Street. The location has been a great move for the young company, and I’m impressed with what they’ve been able to do with it. I for one am glad to see the company thriving after the move and wish them an even stronger season next year.
It’s interesting to see just how much space Mike Kordek (Threshold’s tech director and this show’s scenic designer) can get out of the theater. The place is deceptively large. And for Dinner, Kordek has gone with alley staging, placing the audience on both sides of the action. It works well, leaving the playing space and the theater feeling deep and the show intimate without being claustrophobic.
Intimacy is the name of the game in this play about marriage and everything that comes after by Donald Margulies. Beth and Tom’s relationship is on the rocks, and Tom (Jay Danner) wants a divorce. Beth (played by Pamela Galle) spills the beans to friends Karen and Gabe (Erin Wilson and Laurens Wilson) in a sharp opening scene. The dialogue has a great cadence and a spitfire delivery like something out of an Aaron Sorkin piece. The bombshell of Tom and Beth’s split rocks the group of friends to their core. Lines are drawn in the sand as Tom chases the happiness he’s long given up on, and Beth makes sense of her life without her husband. It’s Karen and Gabe that are caught in the middle — or are they choosing to stand in the middle themselves? Margulies explores the effects one couple can have on another, and how flimsy both marriage and the friendships surrounding them can actually be. The young couples in the audience were laughing, but will they be laughing when they’re in their 40s and looking back on those innocent flirtatious days? Only time will tell.
Director Lon Bumgarner has an eye for the subtext in this piece, and isn’t afraid to stage silence. In fact, it’s some of the quietest moments in Dinner that pack the biggest punch. In a flashback scene to the first meeting between Tom and Beth, no words are needed between the two to convey the longing they have, not necessarily for each other, but for some piece of what Karen and Gabe have. Galle and Danner own the silence here. In fact, Danner is at his best without words: he may have the single most passionate (and most heartbreaking) moment in the play, and he conveys it all with just a touch, just a look. You’ll get no spoilers from me.
Some of the proceedings are a little stiff in the first act, and while the cast soars, they occasionally fail to hit some of the higher notes. Galle and Danner have an argument early on that doesn’t quite hit the intensity it should. Laurens Wilson is a little sleepy at times as Gabe, but I applaud the hot/cold nature of his relationship with Erin Wilson’s Karen. Those two capture the slow burning, often dormant fire of a couple that is in it together. And Erin has a firm grip on the neurosis of Karen and her desire to keep things perfectly moving.
It’s a moving piece with a lot of insight. Couples of all ages should definitely see it. It’s a strong outing for this important season at Threshold Rep.
Michael Smallwood is a local actor who’s appeared in recent productions by PURE Theatre and Holy City Shakespeare.