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Marriage and Divorce, American Style 

Charlotte Rep's invitation to Dinner

If you've ever puzzled over why around 50 percent of American marriages fail -- or for that matter, why 50 percent succeed -- it's a good idea to pop in on Charlotte Rep's beautifully conceived production of Dinner With Friends. Playwright Donald Margulies has a unique way of analyzing the dynamics of marriages, showing us the contrasting surfaces and innards of two marriages -- with sometimes comical, always convincing results. Margulies is particularly trenchant in showing us how the marriage of Karen and Gabe succeeds despite the foibles sprinkled between the couple, ably rendered by two of Charlotte's most seasoned pros, Rebecca Koon and Graham Smith. The two of them introduced Beth and Tom more than 12 years prior to the opening scene, where Beth announces their breakup at dinner, just before the almond-polenta dessert. So part of the strain on the Karen/Gabe marriage is the Beth/Tom divorce -- partly because they feel responsible and partly because they are at odds over where to assign blame.

Dealing with the question of why Beth and Tom fail where their friends succeed, Margulies is far more oblique. We flash back at the top of Act II to the afternoon when Karen and Gabe first brought Beth and Tom together at their Martha's Vineyard summer home. In nonchalant Chekhovian fashion, we see exactly how flimsy the underpinnings of Beth and Tom's relationship really are.

Shuttling back to the aftermath of her marriage, we watch Beth over a patio lunch with Karen excitedly explaining how eager she now is to marry Tom's legal associate. Deja vu? Karen inquires, sparking Beth's resentment. Later that same afternoon, we see that the divorce has also weakened the friendship between Tom and Gabe, as Tom presents a disarmingly objective postmortem analysis of his marriage, casually revealing how little conviction and commitment he brought into it.

That friendship was love, Gabe realizes in the final bedroom scene that deftly echoes the original Martha's Vineyard quadrille. Now it's the fragile underpinnings of Karen and Gabe's marriage that are clinically exposed. But Gabe brings his ethos of commitment to the table -- and a mechanism for restoring intimacy when the relationship teeters on the edge of the abyss. Dopey as that shtick is, it works.

All of this somehow skirts solemnity because of the comical quirks distributed among Margulies' characters and the tasty ironies of their fates. In Act I, Tom is still getting better sex from his estranged wife than Gabe is getting from his contented one. As the curtain goes down in Act II, Karen and Gabe are more torn up over their friends than Beth and Tom are themselves.

Production is every bit as slick as the Pulitzer Prize-winning script, with silky smooth scene changes from Frank Ludwig's nifty Danish modern set design, and spot-on lighting from Eric Winkenwerder. Other than not decreeing a paunch for Gabe, Terry Loughlin's stage direction is flawless.

Smith shows us a wholesomeness and goofball energy we've never seen from him before, leaving none of Gabe's piquant double entendres unsavored amid his stoical suffering. Koon gives exactly the right weight to Karen's judgmental deficiencies, balancing them beautifully against her perky gourmand savoir faire.

Karla Mason makes a superb Rep debut as the artsy-flaky Beth, swerving credibly from gaiety to tears in the opening scene, and veering flamboyantly afterwards from rage and resentment to effervescence and euphoria. While Tom is the most freewheeling and disruptive among the quartet of principals, he's also in some ways the most secure and sensible. Rob Trevelier makes the role fun, imbuing Tom with an affable, plain-spoken boldness and a fastidious conceit.

Unlike last month's True Home, there's nothing embryonic here. I cordially invite you to Dinner. It's a winner.

Tom Vance can't remember whether he began directing fall musicals at CPCC back in 1967 or 1968. But the current Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat is definitely the Vance valedictory, as Charlotte's senior producer director turns his creative energies exclusively to CP Summer Theatre.

Commercially and artistically, Vance is going out on a high note. The Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice crowdpleaser is already sold out for the entire run, a historic CP first. And Joseph is familiar terrain: Vance directed a sparkling summer version in 1993 and prepared one of the local kiddie choruses that participated in the touring version at Ovens Auditorium a few years later.

The artistic team behind the scenes is as strong as ever. Linda Booth has freshened the choreography. Costumer Bob Croghan has mixed in contemporary play clothes, warm ups, and S&M garb amid the usual explosion of Israelite color and Egyptian glitz, tossing in a couple of cutesy camel suits. Vance himself has tossed in a couple of new wrinkles in Pharaoh's Elvis shtick and now has music director Drina Keen taunting Joseph's starving brethren, brandishing a turkey drumstick like a baton at the height of the "Old Canaan Days" lament.

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