Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 November 2019

'Dinner with Friends' is coming to Dubai, and it might just make you reflect on your own relationships

Meghana Mundkur is directing a revival of Donald Margulies’s 1998 play at Alserkal Avenue

The cast of 'Dinner with Friends': (from left) Hissain Hadi, Cerine Bouery, Priyanka Johri and Ahmar Iqbal. Courtesy Yogesh Sharma
The cast of 'Dinner with Friends': (from left) Hissain Hadi, Cerine Bouery, Priyanka Johri and Ahmar Iqbal. Courtesy Yogesh Sharma

There is a line in Donald Margulies’s 1998 play, Dinner with Friends, that sounds, on the face of it, a bit trite. “The thing is,” says Gabe, one half of a married couple from Connecticut, “you never know what couples are like when they’re alone.” It is the sort of well-meaning – but essentially meaningless – guff you might see on the Instagram page of a celebrity going through a break-up.

Or is it? Think harder about those words. They force us to confront some uncomfortable truths, not so much about other couples, but about ourselves. Perhaps the reason we know so little about what couples are like when they’re alone is that we don’t care enough to ask. I’m not talking about a ­“keeping-up-with-the-Joneses” type of nosiness. We all have that. But how many of us make the time to find out what is going on behind the facade our friends and loved ones present to the world?

It is a question at the heart of Dinner with Friends, which is being revived by Indian director Meghana Mundkur and Tall Tales Productions for a short run in November at The Junction in Alserkal Avenue, Dubai. “I think what Donald [Margulies] is trying to say is, check in with your friends, check in with your spouse,” says Mundkur. “Don’t get complacent with your relationships, whether it’s friendships or whether you’re married, because that’s when you might start drifting apart. Just because you’ve got the school fees to pay and work [to do], it doesn’t mean that the passion and the fire has to end. There are ways of figuring it out.”

Dinner with Friends, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2000, is set in Connecticut (although it could be anywhere in the world) and focuses on two couples: Gabe and Karen, and Tom and Beth. One evening, Beth tells the others she is divorcing Tom, who has been unfaithful to her. This comes as a great surprise to Gabe and Karen and triggers a period of reflection about their own relationship, as well as the early days of Tom and Beth’s romance (in a neat twist, it was Gabe and Karen who introduced their friends to each other on a holiday to Italy years previously).

The play has been revived many times around the world since it opened off-Broadway in 1999, including at the Park Theatre in London in 2015. It was also adapted into a film released in 2001, starring Andie ­MacDowell as Karen and Toni Collette as Beth.

The cast and director Meghana Mundkur (centre) of 'Dinner with Friends'. Photo: Yogesh Sharma
The cast and director Meghana Mundkur (centre) of 'Dinner with Friends'. Photo: Yogesh Sharma

The themes of love, loss and simply getting on with getting on are timeless. But Mundkur believes they are particularly prescient now. “I think our entire generation is going through this period of self-reflection,” she says. “What are we doing? How are we messing up relationships? How do we make marriages last longer? Does the passion have to dissipate or can we hold on to that teenage love we had when we got together?”

These questions are particularly poignant for Mundkur, who recently went through a divorce. It is why she chose to take on Dinner with Friends. The process has, she says, been “up and down” but she was determined to direct something that lots of people could relate to. “I’ve been through that dire scenario where we have had to announce to our friends that we are splitting,” says Mundkur. “And those friends have then reflected on their marriage, going, ‘Have we made the same mistakes that they’ve just made?’

She has directed me in another play, so it’s an interesting role reversal

Meghana Mundkur

“It is something that people need to start talking about,” she continues. “I’ve come across people who don’t want to talk about relationships because it’s heavy and we just don’t want to think about it. I thought this might start some interesting conversations.”

The success of Dinner with Friends, which has a cast of only four and is set in the nondescript suburban house of Gabe and Karen, relies almost entirely on the quality of the performances. There are no gimmicks to hide behind. The audience, who play the role here of eavesdroppers, must believe in – and care about – the characters. Mundkur, who actually played Karen in 2003, is confident that she has found four actors capable of transporting us into the tangled lives of strangers. “I’m quite blessed with the cast I have,” she says.

Priyanka Johri, who theatregoers might recognise from a 2018 production of Just Like That, set in Jumeirah Lakes Towers in Dubai, plays Karen, with Ahmar Iqbal as her husband Gabe. Hussain Hadi takes the role of Tom, meanwhile, and Carine Bouery plays Beth.

Hussain hadi and Cerine Bouery in 'Dinner with Friends'. Photo: Yogesh Sharma
Hussain hadi and Cerine Bouery in 'Dinner with Friends'. Photo: Yogesh Sharma

Mundkur has worked with Johri before – “she has directed me in another play, so it’s an interesting role reversal" – but she has been trying to cast Iqbal for some time. “I have asked Ahmar to do two of my previous plays. He rejected both,” she says, laughing. “He is completely off script already. He is extremely dedicated and is pretty much a method actor. He really soaks himself into the character and works very, very hard.”

For Bouery, who is more accustomed to performing in comedies, Dinner with Friends will require her to find a different note. To my mind, Beth is the key player – the catalyst for the drama. “This is about [Carine] flipping that comedy switch off and making her performance extremely subtle and relatable,” says Mundkur. “She’s doing a tremendous job of that, so hats off to her.”

Get it right and Dinner with Friends will not only be a theatrical triumph, it might also persuade those who see it to think a little more about those closest to them. How are they really doing? As Margulies’s play illustrates, we should never assume the answer to that question.

Dinner with Friends is at The Junction, Alserkal Avenue on Saturday, November 2 and Sunday, November 3. More information and tickets are available at www.thejunctiondubai.com

Updated: October 27, 2019 10:40 AM

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