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Simple but Spicy "Dinner"

Veteran actors feast on an excellent script in "Dinner With Friends" at the Firehouse.

But within this simple plotline, playwright Donald Margulies exposes scads of raw and unsettling facts about relationships. Among these are that most marriages eventually develop a certain "baseline wretchedness." Not the bitter and desolate misery that come from abuse or neglect, but the slow, painful breakdown of youthful abandon under the tedious strain of day-to-day maintenance.

I should mention at this point that the play is also very funny.

Another one of Margulies' great observations is that the breakup is ultimately more difficult for the couple who stays together than for the couple who splits. In the Firehouse production, Karen and Gabe are played by Melissa Johnston Price and John Moon. These accomplished veterans superbly capture the complicated dance that keeps their marriage in balance, particularly once they are thrown off their rhythm by Beth and Tom's revelation. Karen reacts with anger and indignation and Gabe with doubt and confusion as they both become aware of their own estrangement. Their tentative, delicate trip back to each other ends the play and is unexpectedly touching, a luminous mixture of insight and humor.

Beth and Tom are played by Jennifer Massey and Rusty Wilson, another pair of stage vets. They have a somewhat rockier time navigating the murky waters that Margulies has thrown them into, but they also show flashes of brilliance. Wilson has a refreshing improvisational style that serves him well, particularly in the confrontational scenes where Tom is trying to explain to his friend Gabe his reasons for leaving Beth. He never sounds rehearsed, his reactions seemingly spontaneous and natural.

However, this style throws off a scene involving an escalating argument between Beth and Tom, the tension rising in uneven fits and starts. Massey also seems uncomfortable in this scene, though she shines in a second-act flashback to the first time Beth and Tom meet. The younger Beth is more of a free spirit with only shadings of the colder and more judgmental woman she later becomes, and Massey expertly projects a mix of exuberance and cynicism.

With its simple kitchen and bedroom settings, Edwin Slipek Jr.'s set design is appropriately utilitarian (Slipek is a senior contributing editor at Style). Unfortunately, the spare lighting design by Jenna Ferree doesn't quite work; characters were often in shadow as they approached the far left and right sides of the stage.

The excellence of Margulies' script shines through regardless, with the final delight being a couple of surprising second-act revelations that make one wonder just how well "best friends" can ever really know each other. Bring a friend or lover to this play and be prepared for an evening of lively conversation afterward. S

"Dinner With Friends" is at the Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad St., Thursday through Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., with occasional Sunday matinees, through May 20. Tickets are $10-$20. Call 355-2001 for details.

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