Watching Margulies is like watching a New Yorker story. He writes about the American, post-bohemian middle class -- well-off people in ordinary homes who have strong or fading artistic hopes and like to eat pretty well. It's a contemporary kitchen-sink style, wielded by the playwright with an apparent wish to watch the audience squirm. Last season the Berkeley Rep mounted Margulies' Collected Stories, about a creative writing student and her teacher; Dinner With Friends tells the story of the fractured relationship between two married couples after one of them splits up.
This material sounds tired, but Collected Stories was strong: Margulies proved, as if we needed reminding, that even banal settings can be rich soil for drama. Dinner With Friends wants to be more of the same. You get overfamiliar scenes rendered with ironic precision, voices dripping with put-on happiness, kids' voices yelling, "Dad, we wanna watch The Aristocats!" -- not to mention John Iacovelli's vividly normal set design -- until the play almost cracks with the weight of its own ordinariness, and Beth breaks down in tears. "He's leaving me," she tells Gabe and Karen. "Tom is leaving. He's left. He doesn't love me anymore." The lulled audience listens closely, as if a close friend of its own has just announced her divorce.
Given a good script and a good cast, the show should work. Richard Seyd did an excellent job directing Collected Stories last year, but somehow he's failed to draw compelling performances out of his four good actors in Dinner With Friends. There's a pall of self-consciousness on this whole production that undermines its realism. The characters should be second nature to an American cast, but maybe their brutal familiarity is exactly the problem. Since everyone in the theater knows how they should act, everyone onstage seems guarded.
Tom is the self-absorbed villain of the play, a Manhattan lawyer who seems to chuck his wife and family just because he's a selfish prick. (After 12 years of marriage he's now "happier" with another, sexier woman.) His side of the story is that Beth made him feel insecure. Gabe and Karen don't understand; Beth is the insecure one. She's a perpetually struggling artist, a painter in her 40s with only vague success. But Tom calls her "this hypercritical woman waiting for me back home who looks at me with withering, critical disappointment."
In this scene Bill Geisslinger, as Tom, transcends the general guardedness onstage. Out of the mass of chatter and social cliché, somebody finally says what he means. The moment is not just well written but also well acted, and every performer has one or two scenes to match it. Lorri Holt plays an effective, breaking-down Beth in a fierce argument with Tom; Lauren Lane turns on as a young Karen during a long flashback on Martha's Vineyard. Dan Hiatt does well as Gabe when he tells off Tom in a Manhattan bar, and when he sits, quietly thinking, in the first act's coda. These moments suggest how strong the play could be. Margulies has a talent for sketching the cold, inarticulate spaces between spouses and friends.
The petty reason for Tom's venom -- the pea in the pile of mattresses -- comes out almost incidentally, in the second act. All it does is disappoint his friends, not to mention the audience. No one tries to save the friendship. One problem I have with this script is that all the characters show a frustrating shortage of mercy; without a hero to rise or fall very far a play can only be so good. Still, Dinner should be more searing than this production. Ionesco once accused kitchen-sink realism of "tendentiousness," because it tries too hard to convince, and the Berkeley Rep's current show only emphasizes what he meant.