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Seattle by Jonathan Frank


Dinner With Friends
and Cinderella

A great deal of ink has been spilled (not to mention countless hours on Oprah) on how to deal with losing a loved one to one of the three 'Ds:' death, divorce, and desertion. However, little to no discussion has occurred on how to process any one of the 'Ds' when it happens to a close friend. In some ways, death and desertion are easier to deal with in that one has a focal point around which to center the feelings and activities, namely the remaining individual. However, when divorce hits a couple and both of them happen to be close friends of yours, the effect is akin to tossing a sizable rock into a small pool of water: the rippling repercussions not only affect the entire topography of the pond, but threaten to swamp anything in their path. After all, witnessing what you thought was a stable, loving, healthy relationship disintegrate tends to cast doubts on your own partnership. Now should you discover that the marriage was never as happy as you believed it to be, this not only does puts into question your ability to read your friends, but your own spouse as well. And this doesn't even begin to explore the difficulties of deciding whose side you are supposed to be on and whom is the wronged party to champion in the break up.

Donald Margulies explores the equally humorous and painful permutations of this scenario in his Pulitzer Prize winning drama, Dinner With Friends, making its Northwest debut at A Contemporary Theatre in Seattle. In an astonishingly subtle yet psychologically gripping drama, Margulies displays a masterful and acute insight into the shifting allegiances and mounting uneasiness brought about by this unfortunately increasing occurrence, and has created one of those rare shows that haunts a viewer long after one has left the theatre.

Dinner with Friends
Janet Zarish and John Procaccino
photo by Chis Bennion
Dinner With Friends centers on two couples, chief of which is Gabe (John Procaccino) and his wife, Karen (Janet Zarish), both of whom recall a kinder, gentler Martha Stewart. Both are food writers and gourmands who can and do whip up a dinner for friends consisting of pumpkin risotto, squash ravioli, and lemon polenta cake while still possessing the time and energy to repeatedly teach the kids how to use the VCR. At first glance, it appears that it will be the their relationship problems which will infuse the play, for neither of them can tell a story nor engage in a conversation without the other butting in and correcting him or her. However, it is their best friends, Beth (Kristin Flanders) and Tom (Mark Chamberlain) whose separation fuels the play and shakes Gabe and Karen's seemingly perfect world to its very foundations.

Dinner With Friends is a very fragile play and the slightest hint of over acting, either dramatically or comically, will deflate the drama like a spent soufflé. Luckily, all four actors, under Gordon Edelstein's capable direction, are up to the challenges and form a wonderfully in tune quartet. As Beth, Kristin Flanders is a whirlwind of insecurities and emotions that turn on a dime. As her faithless husband Tom, Mark Chamberlin deftly handles the challenge of keeping a narcissistic, faithless jerk at least semi-likable, and perfectly underplays the recriminations which would be so tempting to overplay. Janet Zarish was laser-tight as Karen, whose veneer of control crumbles as the world shifts around her. And John Procaccino was surprisingly effective and delightful as the befuddled center of the show, Gabe. In the past, I have found him to be one of those actors who basically play variations on a theme, but in Dinner With Friends he showed astonishing breadth and depth of character. This was especially evident in a treatise of marriage which, if set to music, would not be out of place in Sondheim's Company (and indeed, would make an interesting companion piece to "Being Alive").

Dinner With Friends is one of the most unsettling and thought provoking plays I have seen in a great while. One feels like a peeping tom invading an unsettling slice of life, in no small part thanks to Andrew Jackness' set design, which has the in-the-round space surrounded by gauzy, fly-away windows that serve to increase the feeling that we are intruding upon something we shouldn't. The best aspect of the play is that it does not come complete with a neatly packaged resolution in the end. Instead of a happy ending, we have a hopeful one, which is a lot more realistic, if depressing and conversation inducing.

Dinner With Friends runs at ACT through July 1st. For more information, visit their website, www.acttheatre.org.

Of course, divorce never enters into the world of fairy tales. While death and desertion are staples, if only for villains and parents (especially mothers), we never see the 'ever after' which occurs after the prince and the commoner marry (unless you're venturing Into The Woods, of course). Thus, the messy details of married life are never dwelt upon, which is just fine for an evening of light hearted fun.

The touring version of one such fairy tale, Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic adaptation of Cinderella, is currently residing in Seattle's Paramount Theatre. Originally written for television, Cinderella has been broadcast with Julie Andrews, Lesley Ann Warren and Brandy taking turns playing the female equivalent of Horatio Hornblower. Of course, unlike that rags to riches saga, Cinderella usually finds success through the twin outside forces of a handsome prince and a fairy godmother. But this is the new millennium, and the current stage adaptation portrays the put upon scullery maid as a capable girl who could get to the ball on her own, thank you very much, needing her fairy godmother merely for some fabulous accessories.

Cinderella
Jamie-Lynn Sigler and Eartha Kitt
photo by Chris Bennion
The show, while not perfect, is a great deal of fun, largely thanks to a strong and capable cast. Jamie-Lynn Sigler, best known as the Mafia princess daughter of Tony Soprano in The Sopranos, is charming as the fairy tale princess. She possesses a delightful innocence coupled with a believable determination. While her voice is not Broadway caliber in strength (and indeed was often overshadowed by her prince, played by Paolo Montalban, who appeared on Broadway in The King and I), it is very appealing and possesses a strong emotional center. Montalban, who also played the Prince in the recent Disney television production of Cinderella, likewise possesses equal portions of innocence and determination and the two are magical together, especially in the scenes at the ball when true love strikes two. Everett Quinton, who was a member of New York's Ridiculous Theatrical Company, made a wonderfully wicked Stepmother, remarkably never crossing the border into full-blown camp territory. His scenes with Cinderella alternated between moments of sheer hysteria and ones which were surprisingly chilling. Alexandra Roy (Joy) and Natasha Yvette Williams (Grace) we delightfully zany as the stepsisters, as were Ken Prymus (The King), Leslie Becker (The Queen) and Brooks Ashmanskas (Lionel).

Of course, as befits the part, the chief magical force in the show was the fabulous Eartha Kitt (the Fairy Godmother), who stole every scene she was in. Her droll take on the part brought down the house and you have to love a fairy godmother who spouts lines like "You were expecting a tutu and a wand? Been there, done that," and "I never tried to blend in; I prefer to stand out!"

The only times Cinderella faltered was when it brought to mind other shows, mainly Disney ones. The opening sequence, which has the Fairy Godmother delivering Cinderella's backstory, mirrors Beauty and the Beast right down to the music. Indeed, a great deal of Andrew Lippa's new arrangements for the show sound at least influenced by the recent Disney television production. "The Sweetest Sounds" (imported, as in the Disney version, from Richard Rodgers' No Strings), worked best in the sections where Andrew used the character's upcoming songs (especially "10 Minutes Ago" and "In My Own Little Corner") as counter point. When it and "In My Own Little Corner," descended into a Brandy sounding backbeat, the results were less effective. Whenever the show went in its own direction, such as with the Latin flavored "A Lovely Night," Cinderella was astonishingly refreshing. Puppets with Japanese theater style operators (the 'men in black who aren't there') were used to humorous effect to portray Cinderella's animal friends (although there were two instances where their comic antics distracted from dramatic moments, during the beginning of "In My Own Little Corner" and after the stepmother has ripped Cinderella to shreds figuratively and literally).

Overall, Cinderella is a lot of fun and a great family show as it nicely finds a balance between adult humor and childlike whimsy. Cinderella runs at The Paramount Theatre through June 17th before continuing its tour in Portland, Oregon. For more information, visit www.theparamount.com.




- Jonathan Frank



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