The Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre has begun its first full season in the company’s wonderful new playhouse in Cathedral City—and, rather appropriately, this season’s theme is “New Beginnings.”
The opening show is Dinner With Friends, by playwright Donald Margulies. It won the Pulitzer Prize for drama back in 2000, along with a batch of other awards. Now … if you’re looking for a play full of action, this is not for you. If you’re looking for a catharsis-provoking tragedy that will have you wringing out your Kleenex, forget it. If you want an uproarious thigh-slapper of a comedy, move on. However … if you have ever wanted to be a fly on some wall where you could watch the interactions between people and see the changing of their relationships, this quiet play might interest you.
Dinner With Friends has a cast of four—all efficient actors who maintain a low-key approach to their work. The role of Beth is played by Corryn Cummins, a slender actress with a plump resume which includes work onstage, in film and on TV. Redheaded Beth, when we meet her, is finishing up dinner and vainly attempting to appear interested in the blathering of a married couple, Gabe and Karen, who are endlessly rattling on about their trip to Italy—specifically, about the food they encountered. It turns out that their profession is, in fact, writing about food, so it is of keen interest to them … though not so much to their friends.
The role of Gabe is brought to life by Scott Golden, a veteran of TV series and commercials as well as theater. Dark-haired Gabe is married, stable and solid, a family man keenly interested in all food and drink—a topic that occupies part of his brain in almost every scene, regardless of what else is going on.
His stolid brunette wife, Karen, is portrayed by Jennifer Sorenson, an actress and a dramatist in her own right. She brings a wide range of experience to the role of Karen, a woman with the casual air of a multitasker accustomed to juggling kids, husband, kitchen, friends and career—without raising an eyebrow.
Christopher Wallinger, who can be seen on everything from HBO to FX as well as the stage, plays Tom, Beth’s husband—although he is not present in the first scene. An attorney, he travels a lot, and when we meet him, Wallinger subtly shows us a Tom who is a slightly spoiled and entitled golden boy, despite his rather casual attire.
Director Darin Anthony captures the laid-back quality of the writing and inserts it into the actors’ movements and speech—in every scene. The audience will sense a restrained and drifting quality in the ambiance of the play, which prevents us from anticipating what will happen next. Many plays charge full speed ahead to their goal, but here, as in life, there are no big important signs flashing or foreshadowing every event that occurs. Hmmm.
A heads-up that you could miss if you don’t carefully read the program: The second act is a flashback to 12 years before to the first act.
As always, CVRep’s resident set designer comes through beautifully with scene changes that amaze: Jimmy Cuomo’s designs for each scene are moved in the dark or semi-dark, which is a bit of a disappointment, because it is such fun to watch his terrific sets morph from one to another. Moira Wilkie Whitaker’s lighting designs come through beautifully as well in each of the play’s seven scenes. Kudos to the entire CVRep crew members, who, as usual, have thoughtfully and professionally shared their skills.
I won’t give away the rather thin plot—but this play is all about relationships, and what happens to other people who are not directly involved when a sudden, enormous change occurs in someone else’s relationship(s). It has happened to all of us: A friend or relative goes through a transformation of some sort, and you react to it. This raises questions, such as: What do we really truly want for our friends? How is being married different from being single, beyond the obvious? Have we assigned labels or roles to our family and acquaintances that suddenly don’t apply when a person changes? Are true family members our blood relations, or the people we choose to be close to us? What are the necessary and/or sufficient ingredients that affect or alter the course of a relationship? Why do people grow in different directions after being together for years? Can you ever truly reinvent yourself?
Heavy stuff. We see the characters wrestle with denial, with differing views of reality, with the bonds of marriage and of friendship. We see them talk at the same time instead of listening to each other. We see them test their relationships, with varying results. We see people surrounded by other people—yet experiencing a deep loneliness. We see people unable to communicate their wants and needs—and the craters in relationships this can create. We see people blame others for their own choices. We see them wonder if they ever actually knew each other.
You get to be the fly on the wall watching all this.
Dinner With Friends is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 24, the CVRep Playhouse in Cathedral City, 68510 E. Palm Canyon Drive. Tickets are $48 to $58. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.