By Jennifer Mustoe and Craig Mustoe
I’ve been in a lot of plays and I’ve attended and often reviewed many, many more. There are some performances (like many movies) that I see and discuss a bit and then never think of again. Such is not the case for the current thought-provoking production of Dinner, written by English playwright Moira Buffini. Because last night’s performance had a gathering (“Just Desserts” plus pizza–two nods at the play’s text), hubs and I had the opportunity to talk about the play with the actors and director and with some of the audience members. I even talked to the woman taking the tickets. Hubs and I talked about Dinner on the Trax ride to our car parked at Salt Lake Central, on the ride home, and this morning. We will be talking about it for a long time. Dinner is that kind of show.
It is difficult to give a short summary of the show, so I will include the themes as we go. As the name suggests, it is about a dinner party, given by the beautiful socialite Paige (played with brittle humor and rage by Stacey Jenson) in honor of her philosopher husband Lars’ (Nicholas Dunn) best-selling self-help book, Beyond Belief. The book’s title alone should tell you that this play is serious (supposedly), but darkly comedic as well–very dark. Paige gathers a group of people to celebrate Lars’ success: the artist Wynne (a self-proclaimed erotic artist(?)) who was supposed to be escorted by her politician lover, but he had just left her for a woman named Pam; the scientist, Hal (Daniel McLeod), accompanied by his “news babe” second wife Sian (Alyssa Franks); the unexpected guest Mike (Carlos Nobelza Posas), whose van crashed in the ditch and Paige insisted he stay to dinner to fill out her table; and the silent waiter (Gordon Dunn.)
Hampered by fog, a metaphor (which just about everything is in this play), the guests trickle in, harried by the weather and being late for the dinner. Things ensue. Angry things, painful things, shocking things, hilarious things. But the humor is often the ouch kind. None of it is lighthearted. I was in an acting class years ago and remember a teacher explaining how hard it is to do biting humor and how hard but wickedly funny it is for the audience. Dinner, with its remarkably talented cast and director, has this in abundance. Every character gets their humor. And every character has a secret.
That’s really all I want to say about the plot. I’m concerned that no matter what I say, it’ll be a spoiler of some kind. But really the meat of the play is about themes: what is it we really believe in? Do we believe in God? According to Lars, we don’t or shouldn’t. But then Paige said she’d love it if Jesus came to dinner. Does Lars believe what he wrote about and made so much money on? Then why, when things got very tough, didn’t he practice what he preached? Do we believe in love? There is none between long-married Paige and Lars and they spend the entire dinner party bickering then all out howling and swearing at one another. Do we believe in honesty? Then why did Mike do what he did when he crashed the party? Do we believe in beauty transcending all? Then why did Wynne talk about who were haves and have nots in England? Do we believe science can answer many of our questions? Then why did Hal speak so condescendingly about his chosen profession? Do we believe news is just necessary bits of information to be shared easily to make people feel better? Then why did Sian keep so many secrets to herself, from the way she demeaned Hal’s suicidal first wife to her other secret? And what was the purpose the entirely silent waiter? What was his character trying to say to us without speaking a word?
As you can tell, there are many themes in Dinner. This is all to the good. As much as we’ve discussed this play, with every conversation, we discover more.
The set, designed by Kit Anderton is so simple–and brilliant. The entire show takes place in the dining room, around a table. So we can see each dinner guest’s face, the back of the space is floor to ceiling mirrors. Those people with their backs turned as they sit at the table can be seen in the mirror. I. Loved. This. The table is dressed with fancy table settings–this is a big deal.
Because Paige is known for her fancy, much sought after dinner parties, when she decides to serve really disgusting, inedible food, we the audience as well as her guests know something is terribly wrong. The reasoning behind her food choices are explained with such wicked delight by Jenson that we somehow see the “correctness” of it. Just how did she help us understand primordial soup, live lobsters brought to table, and frozen waste for dessert? Jenson’s biting, controlled, furious realism.
As I said, there is fury in this play–lots of it. Everyone has anger and anguish. Each character explodes at one point. Alyssa Frank’s tirade about being a sexpot is heart-rending and validating. Lars’ fierce defense of his book and his complete hatred for his wife cuts you in half. So sad. So pointless. So hurtful and hurting. Hal’s guilt about his first wife and his apologetic view of his profession made me the saddest–I felt his pain deeply. Mike’s description of his second-class life, his philosophic brilliance that goes far beyond Lars’ superficiality is poignant and devastating.
Each actor performed brilliantly. I was able to speak to all of them at the gathering afterward. Each told me that they felt very cohesive and had put everything into this production. Director Jim Martin, whom I also spoke to, wrung everything out of these actors and I could see the dedication, passion, and slight exhaustion after this performance. It was brilliant. One more thing–all the actors did a great job with British accents. I’m something of a dialect snob, so this meant a lot to me.
Let me say that this is not a play for children–far from it! This play may not be for teenagers. There is a ton of profanity and the discussions, topics, and furious, profound emotions are best reserved for adults. However, I suggest every adult who loves theater and wants a show to talk about for a long time should see this show. I insist.
Wasatch Theatre Company is celebrating their twentieth year and is very excited about their long-standing success and their upcoming season. As always, because they are a non-profit, they are actively asking for donations and support. This is a theatre company that deserves this support.
If I have anything negative to say about this show, it’s that the relatively small black box theater had far too many empty seats. This show should have a packed audience every time it plays. Dinner has a relatively short run, so don’t delay.
Dinner by Wasatch Theatre Company
April 21-May 7, Friday and Saturday 8:00 PM, Sunday 2:00 PM
Wasatch Theatre Company
Performing at The Rose Wager Performing Arts Center
138 West 300 South, Salt Lake City
Call (801) 446-5657 for information.