PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “Dinner With Friends” a Stunner at SAL

By Barry Willis

Donald Margulies’ Pulitzer Prize-winning Dinner with Friends is a must-see for fans of serious theater. The four-actor drama at Sonoma Arts Live runs through June 18.

An examination of the nature and limits of friendship, trust, love, and commitment, the play opens on a dinner party with three friends—married couple Karen and Gabe (Illana Niernberger and John Browning, respectively) and Beth (Katie Kelley), who tearfully and quite unexpectedly confesses an impending divorce from her lawyer husband Tom (Jimmy Gagarin), Gabe’s best friend since college.

… proof of the extremely high quality of theater in the North Bay…

Act One is told in real time—the two couples are in their late 30s, with two kids each, who are away in another part of the house watching a movie. We hear the kids in the distance but never meet them. The four adults have a long history together, including weekends and summer vacations spent together.

Act Two opens with a flashback to post-college days, at a summer vacation home on Martha’s Vineyard, where Beth meets Tom, in a reasonably short scene that establishes the background, followed by some fast-forward scenes that take us beyond the divorce, to Beth’s new relationship with a man named David, and Tom’s new relationship with a travel agent named Nancy. Like the children, David and Nancy never appear other than by mention. The total time scale of Dinner with Friends may encompass 25 years or more, a long period in the history of four close friends.

This performance by some of the North Bay’s top talents is a tour-de-force of dramatic acting. Pacing under the astute direction of Carl Jordan couldn’t be better. Katie Kelley is especially astounding, with a vulnerability and emotional range that may shock some viewers. She hasn’t cut loose this passionately since her appearance as the reticent Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie at 6th Street Playhouse, directed by Craig Miller some years ago. Niernberger’s character doesn’t have such volatile emotions, but provides a perfect anchor as the more grounded of the two friends.

Marguiles knows his characters intimately, depicting them with equal parts social charm and pretentiousness. They’re all seriously effusive foodies and oenophiles who can’t stop gushing about what they’ve cooked, eaten, and drunk—Gabe works as a food writer—and they all share a propensity for over-analyzing everything they discuss.

Marguiles has drawn his characters expertly: basically, as overly-educated specimens of the pampered class, not entirely likeable but not so self-involved as to be totally annoying. Years ago they might have been derisively called “yuppies.”Kate Leland’s costumes couldn’t be more appropriate.

Director Jordan manages to maintain a somewhat unsteady equilibrium throughout the production. It’s an exquisite balancing act. He and fellow designer Gary Gonser have worked up a most compelling set, using the high stage at Rotary Hall as the home of Karen and Gabe, and as the Martha’s Vineyard site, while below it, at floor level, is a bed that’s the scene of a confrontation between Beth and Tom whose volatility becomes an exercise in rage-induced lovemaking. This very realistic depiction happens within arms’ length of the audience in the front row.

There are some echoes of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in Marguiles’ script–the four characters are enormously self-involved and they drink continuously throughout the drama, although unlike in Virginia Woolf?, not to the point of incoherency or vomiting.

The second act includes two lengthy heart-to-heart conversations, one between Karen and Beth, followed immediately by a mirroring conversation between Tom and Gabe. Both of these scenes go on far longer than needed, and might work better as point/counterpoint than the way the author intended, but that’s a minor quibble.

Dinner with Friends is an important production. It’s a superbly well-crafted drama, and glorious proof of the extremely high quality of theater in the North Bay–actors, directors, and technical talents included. With this production, as with The Drowsy Chaperone, Sonoma Art Live has established itself as one of the Bay Area’s premier theater companies.


Aisle Seat Review Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com


ProductionDinner With Friends
Written byDonald Margulies
Directed byCarl Jordan
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesJune 2-18, 2023
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center
276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Tickets$25 – $42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!