• by Sarah Teach •
Theatre Workshop of Nantucket (TWN) cordially invites you to Dinner, the North American premiere of British playwright Moira Buffini’s dark comedy. Dinner kickstarted Buffini’s career when it found a place setting in the 2002 repertoire of London’s National Theatre. Like many playwrights who also direct, Buffini isn’t a stranger to the stage; but her greatest talent lies in creating grim tales that feature unredeemable characters. Sure, Dinner is funny – Buffini’s brain has endless recipes for grisliness slow-cooked with comedy – but it dips into a cauldron much deeper than humor alone. Dinner guest Hal might describe this story’s main ingredient as the “effing” of the working class by the elite, sprinkled with life, death, power, and gender.
Director Virginia Irwin heeded Buffini’s strict instructions to leave the set black box: three dark walls surrounding a single room where all the magic happens. Irwin has designed a set that is small but not claustrophobic. Anne Breeding’s set dressing immediately clues us in: we’re in for an upper class dinner party. Hostess Paige is biting (and not just into her food, which happens to be as alive as her dinner guests). We quickly realize that Paige is unconcerned with the comfort of her guests, but has an alternate agenda. It’s not the classic “dinner party gone wrong”; but rather, everything progresses as unpleasantly as Paige has planned. Maeve McGuire is a delightfully horrid Paige, who seems to think that revenge is a dish best served squirming in its seat.
Paige’s husband Lars, in whose honor dinner is served, has been wildly successful in the recent release of his gimmicky life guidebook, Beyond Belief. Lars sure has the experience to be telling others how to properly live their lives; after all, during childhood, he once endured tough labor as a paperboy. Upon reaching adulthood, he made some savvy trades with his wife’s inheritance and struck it rich. Not unlike some of today’s wealthy, well-cushioned politicians, Lars is leading a flock of desperate, blind followers but lacks real life experience. And when reality pokes holes in Lars’s fish bowl, his theories cannot hold water. Part of living is facing unpleasantries; and deflection of all negativity is not a sustainable tactic. The distinguished looking John Knox-Johnston is perfectly cast as Lars. Knox-Johnston’s masterful body language and facial expressions, suggestive of Stanislavski, convey the whole of his character’s exasperation in a believable way.
A.T. Wilce’s delivery is way funnier than the jokes of his character, Hal, whose story has been told to death on Nantucket: a middle-aged man who’s managed to secure a much younger and much lovelier-looking wife (played by the sexy Vanessa Calantropo). But the dismal Hal is reluctant to snip the rubber bands off his wife’s claws, lest her bitter sarcasm grow strong and pinch him right in the heart. Calantropo proves her versatility in the role of malicious Siân; Glinda the Good Witch can contend with the Wicked Witch of the West. In vying for the title of Biggest Killjoy, Siân and Paige act as the playwright’s personal stamp on the story. Perhaps because Buffini was raised by a single mother, powerful female leads are ever-present in her work.
Buffini also knows that every alpha female needs a lesser ewe over whom she can rule. Susan McGinnis, who is always a great pleasure to watch, is incredibly funny as Wynne, Lars’s main sheep and the most likeable of the batch. But the unfashionably meek Wynne lacks a winning wit. Perhaps when Buffini was slaving over Dinner, which turned out to be her breakout piece, she poured a bit of herself into Wynne, a “sadly undiscovered as yet” artist. Eric Schultz is as cold as the frozen dessert course that he serves as the coiffed Waiter. Line heavy the Waiter’s role is not, but Schultz understands the script and silently projects expectancy on the audience.
Mike (played by Rob Hay), the story’s only working class character, apologetically crashes the party after having crashed his van outside. Although Mike only asks to use the phone to get a tow, the diners cannot concur whether they want the man to stay or go. It seems as if it matters less whether Mike stays or goes, and more that he does not have his own choice in the matter. Because Mike does not have control of the resources that are necessary for his desired departure (the man needs to be given his coat if he’s going to leave!), he is forced to remain where he is. He is objectified and ultimately, even nullified as a human being. Still, the working man not only accepts but is thoroughly satisfied with the putrefied waste that has trickled down to him from the upper class. He is portrayed as mentally slim but does possess a certain breed of intelligence – generally called street smarts – that none of the others have.
Irwin and TWN have brought a fresh and timely tale to the table. When the Dinner evening takes a turn for the bloody, one character’s reassurance, “We’re all witnesses for each other,” is chillingly reminiscent of the big banks behind the 2008 financial crisis. Truly great theatre is transformational without being senselessly shocking, and that is what Irwin has accomplished through this play.
If you have seen the show and didn’t savor every course, then have Dinner again. It is served Thursday through Sunday at Centre Stage at 2 Centre Street until October 12. Visit www.theatreworkshop.com for show times and for tickets, which are $30. Running time is two hours and includes a ten-minute intermission. This is one dinner that does not request the company of your appetite.