"If you don't know one of these people, you are one of these people." That's what Threshold Repertory director Lon Bumgarner has to say about the four characters in Dinner with Friends, a Donald Margulies play that follows the messily enmeshed lives of two couples, one of which is divorcing.
Divorce is a familiar story: there's the betrayal, the fighting and pettiness, the remaking of identity after it's all over. But there's another kind of marriage that divorce can poison, though most people would never admit to calling it such a thing. It's that plural friendship that so many couples frantically rush into once they've paired up, the two-and-two "we" and "us" relationships that are peculiar to — to borrow a term from Bridget Jones — smug marrieds. When the intact couple is suddenly bereft of its counterpart, all kinds of complicated, repressed emotions have room to flourish.
This is the fertile ground from which Margulies has drawn Dinner with Friends. The dramatic comedy charts the changes in the relationships between married couples Karen and Gabe and Beth and Tom. When Beth tells Karen and Gabe that she is divorcing Tom, the news reveals not only the cracks in the couples' friendship, but the doubts that both Karen and Gabe harbor about their own apparently solid, happy marriage.
The show has been called both a comedy and a horror story by reviewers and audience members alike. Pamela Galle, Threshold's executive artistic director who also plays Beth, calls it a "funny horror story," and her opinion is probably one to be trusted: Galle, at one point in her life, was the character she plays in this production. "I saw Dinner with Friends eight or 10 years ago, in Charlotte, and I was very moved by it. I was in a marriage at the time, and I got out a few years later ... the [issue of] friends, who stayed friends with whom, that all happened in my divorce," she says.
Though this might seem as though it would make acting in a play like this the last thing Galle would ever want to do, the experience has been a very rich one. "All Beth's gone through, and the way she acts out — I've experienced all of it. We see everything — her insecurities, her negativity, and it's not so pretty ... But when I play a character, I have to feel that their truth is right, to have a compassion for that character. And having that compassion for her, that forces me to be more compassionate toward myself."
At the heart of the play, and, truthfully, at the heart of divorce, is what happens when we start looking at the choices we've made and why we've made them. And that is almost always a scary thing, especially when one of the choices you're looking at is your marriage. Erin Wilson, who plays Karen (and whose real-life husband Laurens plays her onstage husband Gabe) says that they've had people leave at intermission because the show just hits too close to home. "It's one of those things that resonates with everyone, because it's just so true ... It's an illuminating play." Karen, she says, "is one of those people where everything is very black and white. It's wrong or it's right. If you are one of those black-and-white people, and suddenly there's gray, you're like, oh my god, what do I do with this?"
Because Dinner with Friends is such an intimate, often intense experience, director Bumgarner decided to use runway staging for Threshold's production, which places the audience practically on top of the performers. "The play has many scenes set in different locations, but I put them all in one playing area — I'm most interested in the authenticity in acting. The audience could be watching an intimate moment, and they'll feel almost like they're breaking into the intimacy," Bumgarner says. "The line starts to disappear between theater and reality."
Bumgarner is a professor of theater at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, and it says something about Threshold, Margulies' play, and the city of Charleston that he traveled back and forth between the two cities — sometimes twice in one day, Galle says — in order to direct this performance. "It is 1,000 percent a pleasure working here. If there's a cultural garden that you can plant a piece of art in, it's Charleston," he says.
Just think of this particular flower as more a bird of paradise than a demure and modest daisy.