Conversation takes unsettling turn in 'Dinner with Friends'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Dinner with Friends is a play about divorce - not just the divorce of a married couple, but the divorce of a friendship.

Winner of the 2000 Pulitzer Prize, Donald Margulies' drama is an up-close-and-personal examination of four friends, trenchantly realized at Fell's Point Corner Theatre under Barry Feinstein's direction.

Gabe and Karen are a model of marital happiness. Not only do they live together, work together and travel together, but in the opening scene of Feinstein's production, they're talking at the same time. Food writers recently returned from a trip to Italy, Mark Steckbeck's Gabe and Laura Gifford's Karen recount their culinary adventures with such ardor that when they sing the praises of Italian eggplant or garlic, their voices overlap in a cacophony of enthusiasm.

Indeed, they're so fervent, they don't notice that their guest, Beverly Shannon's Beth, is barely paying attention. If anything, she's becoming more and more distant. When Gabe leaves the room, Beth reveals that her absent husband, Tom, has asked for a divorce.

With this revelation, the foundation that supports both marriages begins to shudder. "It's like a little death," Steckbeck's gentle, stunned Gabe says later to an outraged Karen, admitting that their friends' breakup scares him. "You think you're safe, on solid ground, then all of a sudden, the earth cracks open," Gifford's Karen replies, equally shaken.

Of course, as Gabe acknowledges, you can never know what goes on in someone else's house. Nor, as becomes clear, can you assume that even your closest friends think and feel the way you do. Margulies' play takes us into Beth and Tom's contentious bedroom, and it also flashes back to the night, 13 years earlier, when a well-intentioned Gabe and Karen brought Beth and Tom together.

With hindsight, the audience can spot the fissures that eventually widen into cracks in Beth and Tom's relationship. But in this early encounter, all that Shannon's intense, bristly Beth and Vic Cheswick's eager Tom can see is the sterling example of their friends' marriage. Beth and Tom are attracted to each other, but they're even more attracted to the idea of an ideal marriage.

The attention to detail in this adept production includes Keith Sherman's lighting design, which turns the backdrop into Mark Rothko-esque rectangles of brooding colors. And, refusing to let the audience off easy, Feinstein extends the action into the scene changes. The most notable example comes after Tom and Beth's bedroom scene. Like much of the production, the effect leaves the audience with the uncomfortable sensation of being unable to look away from wreckage.

Show times at Fell's Point Corner, 251 S. Ann St., are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 19. Tickets are $14. Call 410-276-7837.

'Feet' first

Hot Feet, a Broadway-bound dance musical conceived, directed and choreographed by Maurice Hines, with music by Earth Wind & Fire founder Maurice White and a book by Heru Ptah, will make its world premiere at Washington's National Theatre March 21-April 9. The show focuses on an aspiring dancer whose fate falls under the control of a pair of enchanted shoes. Hot Feet begins previews at Broadway's Hilton Theatre April 15. Tickets to the Washington run range from $41.25 to $81.25. Call 800-447-7400.

Arts seminar

The Maryland Arts Council will hold a workshop Tuesday for performing artists and presenters in preparation for the Performing Arts Exchange conference to be held in Baltimore in September. The conference is expected to draw more than 700 presenters, agents and performing artists.

Tuesday's workshop will offer information on how to apply for an Arts Council scholarship to participate in the September conference; how to determine whether a performing arts organization is ready to tour; and how to apply for a juried showcase performance at the conference.

The workshop will take place from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Eubie Blake Cultural Center, 847 N. Howard St. Admission is free, but reservations are required. Call 410-767-6555 or e-mail dhar mon@msac.org.

Temporary home

Theatre Hopkins has found a temporary home in the Mattin Arts Center on Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus. Two productions are scheduled: A.R. Gurney's What I Did Last Summer (Feb. 24-March 5) and Tom Stoppard's Travesties (June 16-25). In addition, the theater will present two evenings titled Shakespeare, 'Improved' (May 20-21) - selections from Shakespeare plays, reworked for 19th-century tastes - at Homewood House. For information, call 410-516-7159.

j.wynn.rousuck@baltsun.com

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