First Nighter: Margulies's 'Dinner With Friends' Served Piping Hot; 'Vera,' An Oscar Wilde Oddity

Because many of us haven't trusted the Pulitzer Prize since 1962 when Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was nixed by the powers there, whatever lands the award from year to year can receive an I'll-be-the-judge-of-that critical response.

I suppose that's my way of saying I wasn't bowled over by Donald Margulies's Dinner With Friends win in 2000. Come to think of it, the decision could have been the Pulitzer deciders' way of accepting their judges' choice that go-round as compensation for the institute's not honoring The Model Apartment, the playwright's superb 1998 play, stunningly revived last year by Primary Stages.

(There's a prominent precedent: Albee's 1967 win for A Delicate Balance was viewed, at least in part, as a make-up nod for the 1962 gaffe.)

But don't get me wrong. While I'm not convinced Dinner With Friends is a duh!-but-of-course prizewinner, I'm glad to say it's a piece of very fine writing. The evidence is the Roundabout's flawless revival at the Laura Pels, directed by Pam McKinnon (who has the recent Who's Afraid....? revival to her credit), and acted by Jeremy Shamos, Marin Hinkle, Darren Pettie and Heather Burns.

Getting back to the Pulitzer voters, maybe they favored Margulies for his depiction of two contemporary middle-class marriages. Perhaps they reasoned the drama had been, and would be, seen by many middle-class marrieds who'd find themselves so well observed in it.

Certainly, Margulies--on record as cribbing from his own marriage to a general practitioner--takes his characters' temperature with compelling accuracy. In the first of his two acts, the ostensibly blissful Gabe (Shamos) and Karen (Hinkle) are hosting good pal Beth (Burns) who confides in their well-appointed Connecticut kitchen (Allen Moyer's design) that husband Tom (Pettie) is leaving her for another woman. After returning home to confront the admittedly philandering Tom, Beth so agitates him when she admits having told Karen and Gabe that he races over to give them his side of the break-up.

Margulies begins his second act flashing back to the summer some 12 years earlier when, at their Martha's Vineyard summer retreat (Moyer keeping up the good work), Gabe and Karen rather awkwardly reintroduce Beth and Tom, who'd disliked each other since their hosts' wedding. That four-way exchange--infused with comic touches that always come easily to Margulies--is followed by a scene in which Karen and Beth discuss the unfolding events, then a scene in which Gabe and Tom do the same and, finally, a one-on-one bedroom wrangle between Gabe and Karen.

Am I going back on my earlier Pulitzer-resistant stance by saying it would be hard to question the wisdom with which Margulies writes about the somehow sturdy Gabe-Karen marriage and the foundering Tom-Beth alliance, which, when ended, allows them to enter into sound second marriages? Not only do I appreciate his views there, but I also admire (maybe even more so) Margulies's nuanced understanding the dynamics of friendships. He's put "Dinner" is his title, and he plays with it by devoting two scenes to Karen and Gabe preparing food with great enthusiasm, as well as having the pair offer Tom something to munch on when he barges in.

But Margulies has also inserted "Friends" in his title, and in both the lengthy Karen-Beth and Gabe-Tom confrontations, he explores the subtle things between friends that, if not confronted, can become big things. His perceptions about the unconscious slights friends can commit, often on an consistent basis, are beautifully jarring. What Beth observes about Karen and then Tom observes about Gabe and that then propels Karen and Tom into their own marital considerations is so profound that, yes, I don't begrudge that Pulitzer.

There'll be no speculating here on how actors and directors approach a Pulitzer play. It's highly unlikely that director MacKinnon thought differently about how she'd treat Dinner With Friends, which did win, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which didn't. The very thought is laughable. And notice that both works dwell on two unions in shaky shape.

Actors undoubtedly think about how best to play the role they've won. Shamos, Hinkle, Pettie and Burns--as guided by MacKinnon--know exactly what to do. Each of them has acquired the kind of resumé that marks them as reliable. Theirs is a reliability that stems from fitting the parts they play as if the parts were written about and for them.

So, renewed congratulations to Margulies on his Pulitzer. More than that, congratulations, prize or no prize, on presenting so believably the infinite complexities of marriages and friendships. These are the foundations on which are built so many of our daily lives.


N. B.: The list of Oscar Wilde's plays usually includes only five--Lady Windermere's Fan, Salomé, An Ideal Husband, A Woman of No Importance and The Importance of Being Earnest. Theatergoers familiar with them may be surprised to learn that's not the complete list. In 1883, his early play-Vera, or The Nihilists, about the eponymous woman's throwing her lot in with revolutionaries (one of whom is a royal)--had its first production in New York City.

It's not a very good play. Actually, it's quite bad, which explains its being little discussed in polite society. It can be seen now, though. True Wilde completists can look at it--and may want to--in the Femme Fatale Theater production at HERE, the first on these shores in 131 years. By their own admission, director-designers Stephen Gribbin and Robert Ribar have tinkered with it but haven't apparently improved the hard-boiled melodramatics. Nor does the all-male cast help.

Among the very few hoped-for epigrammatic remarks for which Wilde is still revered are "Nothing is impossible in prison but reform," "Indifference is the revenge life takes on mediocrities" and "Experience is merely the name men give their mistakes."

Call this Vera an experience.