Bask in glow of Oakland’s ‘Dinner’



Director Christopher Fidram has done it again. Fidram’s heart-stopping production of Donald Margulies’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Dinner With Friends” that opened last weekend at the Oakland Center for the Arts sets another benchmark for area community theater.

Like Fidram’s legendary “Rabbit Hole” from last summer, “Friends” shows what’s possible when you select a superb contemporary drama that hasn’t been staged locally before (or at least recently), cast it with the finest available talent and orchestrate every nuance to utter perfection.

The play opens at the home of Karen (Cheryl Games) and Gabe (James McClellan), where Karen is regaling best friend Beth (Laura J. Phillips) with stories about their recent trip to Florence. While listening, Beth breaks down and confesses that her absentee husband, Tom (John Cox), has left her for another woman.

The apoplectic couple is thrown for a loop, and offer Beth their condolences and reassurance.

Later that night, Tom — itching for a fight — shows up at Beth’s. After exchanging verbal blows, the fight becomes physical, culminating in a bout of angry lovemaking. (“Rage is an aphrodisiac,” Tom sagely explains.)

Act Two shuffles the deck, filling in the backstory of how Beth and Tom (officially) met at Gabe and Karen’s summer house. Their coy flirtation is given a moving subtext by our knowledge that the relationship is doomed from the start. Picking up months after the events of Act One, we see the impact of their impending divorce not just on them, but on Gabe and Karen as well.

“Dinner With Friends” is more than simply a play about the end of a marriage; it’s also a provocative meditation on the entire concept of friendship.

“It’s like a death, isn’t it?” Gabe says to Karen once he comes to the startling realization that Tom and Beth will no longer be a part of their lives. Nothing lasts forever, not even friendships you thought would stand the test of time.

The most devastating moment occurs in the penultimate scene where Gabe and Tom meet for drinks after having avoided each other for months. Gabe’s eloquent mourning of the inexorable passage of time — and his unspoken acknowledgment that he’ll probably never see Tom again — is truly gut-wrenching, tear-your-heart-out stuff.

The performances are nothing short of spectacular. Musical theater veteran McClellan proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that he’s one of the area’s most impressive dramatic actors as well. Games, in a remarkably accomplished Oakland debut, brings such emotional veracity to her role that she makes even the tiniest character details resonate. Cox and Phillips are electrifying to watch, never more so than when they’re lashing out at each other like wounded animals.

In an ideal world, ensemble acting of this caliber would be the norm, not the exception. But since that’s rarely the case, just be grateful for the opportunity to bask in the collective glow of this amazing quartet of actors. And the almost surgicallike precision of the director who helped elicit their tour-de-force performances.

“Dinner With Friends” runs through March 27 at the Oakland Center for the Arts. For tickets, call (330) 746-0404.

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