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Marital conflict 

Perceptive Dinner with Friends loses steam

Does passion necessarily fade? Must romance give way to routine? Donald Margulies explores these questions with this year's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Dinner With Friends, in which a married couple sees their best friends' marriage tear apart, and finds fault lines in their own union. In a sense, Margulies' play itself deliberately demonstrates the waning of intensity. Currently playing at the Alliance Theatre's Hertz Stage (formerly named the Alliance Studio), Dinner With Friends' emotionally charged first half gives way to a less electric, more moderate second. It's never less than truthful and compelling, but one can't help but wish Margulies had resolved the play with a display of dramatic fireworks to equal the early scenes.

Gabe (Bill Christ) and Karen (Kate Levy) make a perfect example of a too-perfect couple. Having an ordinary get-together with their best friend Beth (Rhoda Griffis), whose husband is away, they enthuse over their recent trip to Italy, finish each other's sentences and find imperfections in their impeccable gourmet dishes. It seems an evening like any other until Beth unexpectedly breaks down to reveal that Tom wants to end their marriage.

The happy couple are shocked by the news, with Karen immediately taking Beth's side against Tom, and Gabe baffled at his friend's behavior. In the following scene, when Tom (Tucker Smith) unexpectedly returns home to Beth, he's furious to discover that she's given away the secret. "You've prejudiced my case!" he snarls at her in a fight with unnerving shifts in tone. Tom also throws Karen and Gabe off-balance by showing up late at their house, to argue his side.

The events of Act One occur in a matter of hours, with Tom proving both a lose cannon and unreasonable narcissist, unwilling to hear the advice of his college buddy. Director Jessica Phelps West nimbly negotiates the peculiar etiquette between friends and spouses and the messiness when the relationships turn upside-down. At intermission, you're full of suspense at what will happen next and how the momentum will build, but when the play resumes, you discover that it's already peaked.

The second act begins with a flashback to a trip to "the Vineyard," during which the newlywed Gabe and Karen introduce Tom and Beth. The scene has the same 20/20 hindsight of Harold Pinter's Betrayal (which examines adultery in reverse chronological order). Remarks like "there's no harm in introducing them" and "when you get married, you can get on with your life" are fraught with implication. Margulies is fond of such flashbacks -- his excellent script Sight Unseen has two -- but they never do favors to stage actors, who always look too old for their roles' younger selves.

The remaining scenes also play in a minor key compared to the earlier ones, although they're filled with revelations, recriminations and the airing of surprise grievances. Margulies intentionally hints at complications without exploring them, like bits of Beth and Tom's sexual history that make the break-up seem not nearly so black-and-white. The play both affirms that, "You never know what couples are like when they're alone," and shows how one married pair will measure themselves against another.

At times Christ and Griffis can be a bit stiff and stuffy, as if trying too hard to fit the mode of the WASPs that populate John Cheever's fiction. But they give rounded and sympathetic performances, comfortably matching Levy and Smith's more demonstrative roles. And while Levy and Christ convey the comfort of a long-time married couple, Smith and Griffis play people in flux, rediscovering rawness of feeling.

Not only must Gabe and Karen deal with the "custody battle" over their separating friends, they must react to the renewed purpose, freedom and physical fulfillment Tom and Beth each discover. The final scene has Gabe and Karen wondering whether, in wedded life, "practical matters begin to outweigh ... abandon" and if the price of a stable, secure household is a future of anticlimaxes.

Margulies ends Dinner With Friends with less of a bang than a whimper. The play has funny moments, such as the way Tom's new girlfriend, a travel agent, is repeatedly called a "stewardess," but at heart it's a serious look at how we react when our closest relationships come into conflict. A worthy playwright, Margulies falls only a little short of the standard set by previous Pulitzer winners How I Learned to Drive and Wit, and the well-observed Dinner With Friends disappoints only insofar as its second half lacks the forceful conflicts of the first.

Dinner With Friends plays through Oct. 15 at the Alliance Theatre's Hertz Stage, Woodruff Arts Center, 1280 Peachtree St., with performances at 8 p.m. Tues.-Sat. and 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. $21-27. 404-733-5000.

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