DINNER WITH FRIENDS: A Meaty Production at Milburn Stone

by David Bradford

John Mulvey as Tom, Karen Decker as Beth, Mike Ware as Gabe, Melanie Bishop as Karen in Milburn Stone’s DINNER WITH FRIENDS. (Photo credit: Scott Serio, Cecil Scene)

A few weeks ago, when I reviewed Milburn Stone Theatre’s production of LEGALLY BLONDE THE MUSICAL I concluded by saying “If you are looking for an intense, intellectually deep show with a lot of literary meat on its bones, look elsewhere.”  I could conclude this review the same way, provided I change “look elsewhere.” to “look no further!” DINNER WITH FRIENDS will hurtle you on an emotional rollercoaster. It is a deceptively complicated script that will keep your mind engaged from start to finish.

DINNER WITH FRIENDS, written by Donald Margulies, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2000 and was made into a TV movie in 2001 starring Dennis Quaid, Andie MacDowell, Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette. It is the story of two couples who are best friends. One couple, Beth and Tom, are getting a divorce, a fact revealed to the other couple, Gabe and Karen, over dinner. Throughout the course of the show, we see how this news affects both couples and their relationships to their spouses and friends.  In the beginning of Act II we also get a flashback scene that shows us how Gabe and Karen actually brought Beth and Tom together one summer at their house on Martha’s Vineyard.

Milburn Stone Theatre’s production of DINNER WITH FRIENDS, while not perfect, is engaging.  I found myself rapt in entire sections of show. I rarely put my notebook down when reviewing a show, but did so on several occasions during this one. It is a winner and definitely not to be missed if you enjoy thought-provoking emotional dramas.

Melanie Bishop as Karen; Mike Ware as Gabe in DINNER WITH FRIENDS at Milburn Stone Theatre in North East, MD. (Photo credit: Scott Serio, Cecil Scene)

The non-divorcing couple, Gabe and Karen, is played respectively by Mike Ware and Melanie Bishop. Ware’s soft spoken demeanor could have easily led to underplaying the role, but nothing could be further from the truth.  Ware brings Gabe, his internal struggles, joys, and fears to light.  It would also have been easy for Bishop to get wrapped up in Karen’s outward superficial characteristics. Instead she masterfully reflects Karen’s own insecurities and vulnerabilities.  It was very nice work.

Realistic dramas, particularly when they involve such intense and emotional issues like divorce, can be difficult to portray naturally. Surrendering yourself 100% to the character can be a frightening proposition.  Karen L. Decker’s portrayal of Beth is close, but needs some adjustments. In the opening scene Decker is telegraphing the emotions a little too much, particularly on the line “Did you get to Rome?” I would encourage more internalization and subtlety. Beth is a complicated and, presumably, sympathetic character, but that does not translate.  If Decker fully buys into the Beth, the results will be stunning.

In a strange way, Tom (John Mulvey), too, should be a sympathetic character. In the real world, it is not always easy for a man to give voice to such emotional concerns. Unfortunately, Mulvey misses the mark.  Tom has a lot of quirky traits that Mulvey focuses on without grabbing hold of the underlying emotions.  He, too, needs to open himself up to the emotion, internalize it and be more subtle.  The audience needs to feel exactly how Gabe feels about Tom by the end of the show.

DINNER WITH FRIENDS works best in an intimate setting. I was hoping Director Marshall B. Garrett would have staged it “on stage, back stage” like he did last year with DEAD MAN’S CELL PHONE. However, given the size of the wonderfully realistic sets being employed, it would have been a difficult proposition.  I would encourage those attending though to seek the closest seats possible.

Karen Decker as Beth; Melanie Bishop as Karen in DINNER WITH FRIENDS at Milburn Stone Theatre through September 23. (Photo credit: Scott Serio, Cecil Scene)

Despite the issues I have highlighted this production is wonderful!  I guarantee you will get lost in it and come out emotionally affected. I would definitely recommend this only for adults.  The language is not too offensive, but the situations and emotions it deals with will be lost on those who haven’t experienced adulthood and the challenges it brings.

DINNER WITH FRIENDS runs September 14, 15, 21, and 22 at 8pm and September 16 and 23 at 3pm. Tickets are $18.

Written by Donald Margulies
Directed by Marshall B. Garrett
September 14 –23, 2012
Milburn Stone Theatre
Cecil College
1 Seahawk Dr.
North East, MD

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