When Donald Margulies' "Dinner With Friends" won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000, I remember admiring its attempt to probe beneath the surface of the friendships between two upscale married couples. He delicately and brutally took us up-close and personal into the assumptions and the chemistries that hold relationships together -- and then, sometimes, let them pull apart.
But the tragicomedy had its premiere in the heyday of such nuanced-relationship TV series as "thirtysomething," which made the play feel more than a little like a been-there/done-that high-toned soaper.
Either the play has deepened, or I have, or television isn't mining that particular domesticated demographic with such intensity these days. Whatever the reason, the revival that the Roundabout Theatre has mounted at its Off-Broadway venue feels freshly bruised -- even emotionally brave.
This is not to say that the four-character play avoids the occasional cartoon caricatures of Gabe and Karen, married foodies for whom an obsession with cooking has replaced most other forms of communication. Nor can we ignore the getting-in-touch-with-myself cliches pulled from the divorce of their closest friends, Beth and Tom, with a pathetic belief in their profundity.
This time, however, I believe that Margulies knows all that and uses it to uncover a bigger uncomfortable truth: that, no matter how well you think you know people, nobody ever knows what really happens within the closed world of a couple alone.
We first meet three of the four characters in the well-equipped kitchen of Gabe and Karen -- played with an almost scary fear of change by Jeremy Shamos and Marin Hinkle. As Beth, Heather Burns transforms impressively from betrayed wife/victim to savvy survivor.
In this first of seven brief but telling scenes, designed with tidy grace by Allen Moyer, we learn that Tom (portrayed with many sides of handsome opportunism by Darren Pettie) left Beth for another woman. This betrayal is at least as shattering to her hosts as to herself.
As she showed in recent productions of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "Clybourne Park," director Pam MacKinnon is a virtuoso with a lens poised under the facade of human pretense. She and her first-rate cast appear to have genuine affection for these people, even when they are being foolish, even when they are hateful. As they go their own way, for better and probably for worse, this time, we care, too.
WHAT "Dinner With Friends"
WHERE Pels Theatre, 111 W. 46th St.
INFO $82; 212-719-1300; roundabouttheatre.org.
BOTTOM LINE First-rate Margulies revival feels fresh