Encore Michigan

Monster Box’s Dinner with Friends a feast

Review September 03, 2017 Paula Bradley

WATERFORD TWP., Mich.–Folks who are good friends for a long time may often see everything they have in common–the parallel tracks they are following in life–and overlook, or not even notice, their vast differences. That is the situation in Dinner With Friends at Monster Box Theatre, which is performing the Pulitzer Prize winning play about two couples with a long shared history.

Gabe and Karen (played by Robert Schorr and Heather Hudson) are two foodies, whose greatest pleasures in life include creating exotic dishes to pair with various cocktails, and watching an old Italian woman crush tomatoes with her hand. Early in their marriage, they introduced Gabe’s college buddy, Tom (Ken Overwater), to Karen’s co-worker, Beth (Sarah Himsel-Burcon), who eventually married. The two couples have since enjoyed regular dinners together (Gabe and Karen cooking, of course), raised their children as friends and vacationed together annually. All is safely in place for a lifelong relationship among the best of friends.

Lifelong, that is, until Karen and her kids arrive for dinner one evening without Tom, and breaks down in tears before announcing that Tom is leaving her for another woman. Gabe and Karen both act stunned, teasing the details out of her. Later that evening, Tom visits Gabe and Karen for himself, and discovers, as he suspected, that his friends got a very one-sided story from Beth.

Gabe and Karen struggle with the news of their friends’ breakup. Karen believes wholeheartedly that Beth is the wronged party and Tom bears all the blame. Gabe is more torn in his allegiance. Together, and individually, Gabe and Karen begin to examine their own disagreements, and to question how permanent any relationship—including their own—can really be.

Through subsequent meetings between Gabe and Tom, Karen and Beth, personality clues are revealed that help elucidate Tom and Beth’s relationship. In a flashback scene, we see the dinner that initially set up Tom and Beth as a couple. Gabe and Karen may be too close to the other couple to see it, but after learning a bit of Tom’s history, the fact that he decides to leave Beth seems less a surprise (to the audience at least). And in the scenes that take place a few months after the breakup, Tom and Beth’s descriptions of their new relationships shed even more retrospective light on their doomed marriage.

The four actors, as an ensemble, do a good job showing a wide range of emotions—excited and carefree, angry, desperate, frustrated, confused, uncomfortable. They clearly define each character’s personality through emotions—Karen as the most excitable and at the same time most uptight, and Gabe as the somewhat reluctant solid rock; Tom as one newly freed from societal constraints, and Karen as the dissatisfied free spirit who makes new discoveries. Yet none become cartoonish.

The most interesting aspect of the play is seeing the character arcs go in different directions, from their initial point as a supposedly solid group to their own self-discovery of their differences. Tom, who is initially painted as the cad willing to abandon his family for more exciting prospects, ends up comfortably admitting his true nature, even when it conflicts with what others think he should be. Beth, after years of being unfocused, uses the situation to go after what she probably (although unadmittedly) has wanted all along.

Karen is clearly the most optimistic of the group, a “glass half full” personality who is also the most resistant to accept the changes in their lives. After her initial support of Beth, she disapproves of the new direction in Beth’s life, even though Tom and Beth are experiencing a sort of mid-life renaissance. And Gabe seems to be the most constant, in multiple ways. He attempts to listen without judgment as Tom explains his actions, and sympathizes with him, but only to a point. Gabe explains that “the key to civilization is resisting the urge to chuck it all” during the inevitable periods of discontent.

All this leads to Gabe’s realization that evolution in a relationship occurs when the parties can stick it out, even “when practical matters begin to outweigh abandon.” And, like the grounded person he is, he uses that realization to cement his connection to Karen, even as their connections to Tom and Beth crumble.

Another interesting choice is the use of food and drink throughout the play. The food and drink represent what the four characters believe they have in common, but are also used by each character to avoid uncomfortable admissions and a deeper, truer understanding of each other. The food and drink also become a delight to the senses of (imagined) taste and smell for the audience, which unfortunately are too often sacrificed for the sake of emotional, visual and audible effect in theatre.

Finally, the use of popular music during scene changes, particularly chosen to highlight the story, is a nice touch.

Dinner With Friends, directed by Stacy Grutza, features some strong language and adult situations, but it is an interesting study of introspection and self-discovery caused by the speed bumps of life. Plus, you might be treated to some dessert during the intermission! It is playing at Monster Box through September 10, 2017.

Click here fort show days, times and ticket details.