There's something about the dinner party setting that dramatists and screenwriters just can't resist.
The appeal of gathering wildly different personalities in one location partaking of one of the most basic human activities, is such a ripe setting that it inspired its own spinoff genre — the whodunnit murder mystery dinner show, which Moira Buffini's Dinner, now playing at Balagula Theatre, is decidedly not, despite including a two minute rapid-fire monologue expounding all of the conceivable ways to murder someone.
Director Natasha Williams seems to relish turning the convention on its head with an unforgettable menu of intrigue, wit and some jarring ruminations about the aspirations and limitations of the human experience. The result is a production that is entertaining and sobering in equal parts, a very serious comedy indeed.
At the show's core is such a sophisticated, precise act of revenge that is so stealthily, artfully executed that no one sees it coming, although the simmering tensions between long-time married couple Paige (Laurie Genet Preston) and Lars (Robert Parks Johnson) suggests the evening can only end in some variant of disaster.
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The couple are joined by colorful members of the middle and upper classes: Hal (Darius Fatemi), a scientist with a secretive job; his wife, Sian (Robbie Morgan), the "sexpot" news anchor; Wynne (Lisa Mendez), an erotic artist and former love interest of Lars; and a working-class gate crasher, Mike (Burley Thomas). Along the perimeter of the stage stands The Waiter (Will Drane), who is always ... waiting.
The ensemble deftly wields Buffini's linguistic melange of curt Britishisms and tangled philosophical circumspections. (Still, some accents could use some sharpening for consistency.)
It's easy to see how Paige chose each guest precisely to push certain buttons of other guests, maximizing her twisted sense of entertainment.
Morgan's fierce Sian has no problem boiling her own lobster alive and happily laps up seconds of the algae-based appetizer, called "primordial soup." Her shrewd, seeming amorality is a guise for a deep need to embrace the fullness of life, something the gentle dreamer and vegetarian Wynne might not have the stomach for.
Each member of the ensemble deserves praise, but it is Preston and Parks Johnson whose dysfunctional loathing drives the show to its climax.
Preston is captivating to watch. We've rarely seen the longtime Lexington actress in such a chilling, villainous role — and it is thrillingly cold. Parks Johnson holds his cards closer. Lars must be careful not to betray his philosophies despite Paige's ingenious needling.
For most of the show, Lars seems to be a pretty likable guy. His evenness and civility do not appear deserving of Paige's incessant cruelty. His successful philosophy/pop psychology book hinges on the notion that a psychological apocalypse should be embraced as a necessary component toward achieving your dreams, that each individual is the god of his own life. Here's a man who's got it together, right? Wrong.
Through Paige's jibes and clever execution of the dinner party (which includes courses like "frozen waste," literally an ice cream-like substance made from leftovers in the garbage), we start to wonder what she's getting at. By the play's end it is clear: to dethrone Lars as god of his own life, to expose him as a hypocrite, and to turn his own philosophy against him in the ultimate revenge, which Paige cleverly calls "just desserts."