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February 21, 2014



Fewer openings in February means the month when I have the most dinners with friends. How apt, then, to again encounter Donald Margulies’ potent, truthful and excellent DINNER WITH FRIENDS in Pam McKinnon’s fine production.

When Gabe and Karen invited their best friends Tom and Beth to dine at their house, they had no idea that they’d already had their final dinner with them. From now on, they’ll host either Beth or Tom, but not both – for Tom’s taking up with Nancy means the end of 12 years of marriage and his everyday parenting of two kids.

We feel terrible for Beth, especially because of Heather Burns’ trying-to-be-brave-but-failing delivery. And yet, we’ll agree with a plane-grounded Tom learns that Beth spilled all to their best friends; now, he says, Beth has an advantage because Gabe and Karen have heard her side of the story and not his. We in the audience see that we did the same thing: jumped to conclusions before we heard all the evidence – well, if not evidence, then opinions.

Tom rushes right over to see Gabe and Karen. The latter will barely speak to him. “I wish you’d confided in me, Tommy,” Gabe says; Jeremy Shamos adds the perfect light touch when using the diminutive to seem more palsy-walsy and to lighten the situation. But then Tom exposes the brass-tacks situation of little-to-no sex. Darren Pettie beautifully delivers the sad line, “I don’t want to go through life hoping to get lucky with my own wife.”

Yeah, but the thing about taking up with someone new is that after a while, your relationship ages just as your previous one did. Another year, or maybe less; what’s this I hear? Well, can’t you guess?

One of the most powerful moments comes when we see a flashback in which Karen is spurring a semi-blind-date meeting between Beth and Tom. “What’s the worst that can happen?” Marin Hinkle asks in appropriately blithe fashion. Well, we’ve already found out: a broken-hearted wife who’ll now raise two kids in a broken home, and a man who’ll add child support to his bills of a new residence and life. Those who love to matchmake with the zest of Dolly and Yenta combined should learn from this scene; the possibility of ruining two people’s lives is far greater than the chance of making them blissfully happy now and forever. The flashback becomes even more potent because Burns plays Beth with the requisite coolness, as if she can’t be bothered with Tom, while Pettie lets us see that Tom wants her to like him.

Soon after Gabe meets Tom for a drink, he wants to extricate himself from him and certainly doesn’t want to spend next weekend with him and Nancy. Shamos is much more effective at making “We’re visiting my sister in New Hampshire” more convincing than Dennis Quaid did in the TV-movie, where he made the line an easy-to-see-through excuse. But is Gabe dropping Tom as a friend because his new lifestyle is too freeing and happy, and thus threatening to the husband and father of two?

Tom tells Gabe bombshell information about Beth’s behavior of ten years ago. Wouldn’t Tom have brought this up when he had his first late-night encounter with Gabe and Karen? They would have immediately switched to his side if he’d said it then. Is this a flaw in the play?

Ah, but Tom could be lying. Perhaps Beth isn’t guilty of what he says, and he’s simply trying to get the sympathy that Gabe has been withholding. Margulies doesn’t tell us; good playwrights often don’t. What he makes clear in his last scene is that Gabe and Karen aren’t the perfect couple. But, really, who is? Who CAN be?

I followed DINNER WITH FRIENDS with dinner with a friend: Rob Wills of Toronto, who tells me he’s never seen anything in his life like LONDON ROAD. I won’t spill the beans on why he found it so effective, but I hope the producers take it on the road – specifically here in New York.

Then came dinner with friends and recent co-workers, at the home of Maureen Silliman and William Parry; they were so magnificent as the leads in my play ADAM’S GIFTS. (Scripts available upon request.)

Maureen reminisced: “One of my first jobs was playing Tillie in THE EFFECT OF GAMMA RAYS ON MAN-IN-THE-MOON MARIGOLDS with Shelley Winters. Shelley fired me every day during rehearsals – each and every day. She was having trouble with her lines, and she would say that she couldn’t work with me because I wasn’t trained at the Actors Studio.”

Needless to say, this discouraged Silliman, who was only slightly assuaged that the other young woman in the cast was fired every day, too. “But the director would tell both of us to come back the next day, which we did. Rehearsals would go along okay for a while, but by three o’clock, something would happen and Shelley would fire us again. And the director would quietly rehire us.”

Finally, the show opened in Atlanta. Silliman got fine reviews, but Winters did not. “I was truly afraid to go to the theater that night,” she said with a shudder. “I really thought she might kill me. But when I arrived, Shelley looked at me and then at the director and said, ‘Okay, she’s good, but I’ve got a lot of work to do, so let’s get to it.’ We did, and after that she was always good to me.”

When the production moved to the Cocoanut Grove Playhouse, Winters learned that she’d been nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE. “So,” said Silliman, “she took me and the actress playing the very old woman to a drive-in to see the picture. It was the ideal ‘theater,’ because Shelley could talk through the picture without disturbing anyone. She told us how the movie was made every step of the way and what she had to go through with all that water pouring in. It was the very first drive-in I ever went to. Most girls go with their boyfriends, but leave it to me to go with Shelley Winters and an 87-year-old woman.”

While I lunched with Charles Strouse, he divulged a nifty fact. His first Broadway credit was writing incidental music for a 1956 play called SIXTH FINGER IN A FIVE FINGER GLOVE. If you know THE SEASON, author William Goldman gives it as an example of a terrible title. The play couldn’t have been very good, either, given that it opened on Oct. 8 and closed on Oct. 9.

“But what I did with the music,” said Strouse, “was sell it to THE PRICE IS RIGHT, and they used it as their theme song for years. I got $600 a week,” he added, giving a big smile that indicated the price was right.

Ben West threw a nice party for his Unsung Musicals company. Because HOW NOW, DOW JONES was one of his early successes, he invited Martha Shulman, daughter of bookwriter Max Shulman. So while we shared some crudités, Martha told me how her daddy came to work on that show.

In the mid-1960s, Shulman was taking a plane, and when he got to his seat, who was ensconced next to him but the great lyricist Carolyn Leigh. They didn’t know each other, but by the time the plane landed, they’d agree to collaborate, because Leigh had said to him, “I have this marvelous idea and title for a musical: HOW NOW, DOW JONES.” In other words, if someone had been sitting between them, we’d have no DOW JONES, and David Merrick wouldn’t have got a punch in the nose from Shulman during the Boston tryout. (Martha told me that, too.)

There was a nice reception for the Skirball Center, celebrating its 10 years of success as a downtown booking house. Given that executive director Michael Harrington was prepping us for some Chinese theater, you’d think that Chinese food would serve as dinner. But hummus had to take the place of Hon Sue Gai.

The Skirball’s “Vision + Voices China Series” (Feb. 20-May 12) won’t revive GOODTIME CHARLEY in Mandarin. But Ibsen’s HEDDA (as in GABLER; Feb. 25) and THE LADY BY THE SEA (Feb. 26) will be staged courtesy of The Hangzou Yue Opera Company. The National Theatre of China brings in Shakespeare’s RICHARD III from March 26-30. Said Harrington, “Hangzou is an all-female troupe; the National Theatre has three different actors playing Richard. We’re encouraging people to go outside their comfort zone in a comfortable theater.”

Harrington went to China and had many a dinner with new friends, but worried that he might not be able to keep them. “At certain dinners,” he said, “you’re supposed to have one rice alcohol shot after another. Finally I said, ‘I simply can’t have any more,’ and I could see that I’d immediately said the wrong thing. You’re just expected to keep going.” We have to be grateful that Harrington’s gaffe didn’t keep the troupes from coming here.

Finally, Ken Kantor, dining between his Wednesday performances of PHANTOM, told me about the time he was playing Tevye. He was finding his way in the darkness to the bed where he and his Golde would sing about “The Tailor Motel Kamzoil.” Kantor had been able to tell from the performance she’d been giving that she wasn’t at her best, so as they slipped beneath the covers, he asked if anything happened to be wrong. “Diarrhea,” she moaned. “And at that second,” reported Kantor, “the lights went up. I was so nervous being in bed with her in her condition that I’m surprised I could get through the number.”

Luckily, the story did not have an ending that would have ruined the modest repast we were having.

         — Peter Filichia

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