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Friends click as stars of ‘Dinner With Friends’

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Donald Margulies' recent Pulitzer Prize-winning drama "Dinner With Friends" will have its regional premiere Jan. 9-26 on the Lees Main Stage of Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre. Directed by Charles Morey, the Pioneer Theatre Company production has an all-Equity cast of players who should be familiar to local theatergoers.

The plot revolves around two married couples who've been close friends for years. Karen and Gabe (Joyce Cohen, Craig Bockhorn) are internationally renowned food writers who live in Connecticut. At the opening of the play, they've invited Beth and Tom (Dierdre Madigan, Matt Loney) over for dinner. Gabe has concocted a sublime lemon-almond polenta. But Gabe and Karen's plans for a pleasant dinner quickly deteriorate when Tom is a no-show and Beth confesses that she and Tom are splitting up.

Morey notes that since the entire cast has worked with PTC before, the actors — just like the characters they're portraying — are like a group of old friends. "In a play like this, this is a real advantage," Morey said. "It's truly an 'ensemble' piece, and if you start off with that sense of community, you're already three steps ahead of the game."

Cohen, who lives in Salt Lake City, is well-known locally for her performances not only at PTC, but also recent roles with Plan-B ("Molly Sweeney" and "The Laramie Project") and Salt Lake Acting Company (most recently, "The Memory of Water"). PTC regulars will remember Bockhorn for his show-stopping portrayal of Yvan in last season's production of "Art." He also portrayed the frustrated managing director in the world premiere of Morey's original backstage comedy "Laughing Stock." Loney was last seen here as Bishop Egerton in "Joyful Noise" and as Bernard Nightingale in "Arcadia," while Madigan played Mollie Malloy in PTC's revival of the classic "The Front Page."

Morey said "Dinner With Friends" is one of the few new plays that he continually gains new respect for during the rehearsal process. "In many brand-new plays, you kind of see the holes and the areas you have to stitch together, but in this case it's an astounding piece of work. During every rehearsal we learn something richer and deeper."

Bockhorn, who was born in New York City, grew up across the river in New Jersey. He is now involved in renovating an older home in Queens and spends quite a bit of his time doing regional theater. "What I do like about this one is that there is some humor in it. Although it deals with divorce, I like working that funny bone. We've all seen lots of stories about divorce, but this is more about what their friends go through."

Most recently, Bockhorn performed in "The Seagull" in Central Park with a star-studded cast that included Meryl Streep and Christopher Walken. "I just played a servant, but it was great to work with those people.

Bockhorn saw "Dinner With Friends" during its extended off-Broadway run (but not with the original cast), then caught it again in Philadelphia, where a friend of his was in the cast. "It seems kind of 'easy' on the surface, but the more you dig into it, you find these twists. It is really a joy to work on, especially with these people. Even watching Matt and Diedre rehearse their scenes, there's still an 'I-don't-know-how-it's-going-to-end' quality. That's a real testament to their acting skills.

"This is one of those plays that's either a drama with humor or a very serious comedy. It's probably more serious than comedy. It's like life. I've been to some funerals where I've heard the funniest jokes."

Bockhorn has worked with Cohen on several previous occasions. "I was Mitch to her Blanche in 'A Streetcar Named Desire.' "

Morey cautions that "Dinner With Friends" does contain quite a bit of strong language. There are also a couple of bedroom scenes, but there is no nudity. "But the language does get pretty strong during an ugly fight between the divorcing couple.

"I saw it in New York and found it very funny and moving and very true. I think it's very familiar material for anyone who is married or middle-aged, with or without kids. It's very real and very contemporary — not because it shakes any of our preconceptions about marriage or our lives; it reinforces what we already know."

Two of PTC's resident designers — scenery designer George Maxwell and costumer Carol Wells Day — are involved with this production. "There are five different locations in the play. It moves around a lot, almost perversely so," said Morey. While there is one basic set that the action shifts back to three times during the play — a combination kitchen/family room — the actors also spend some time in a summer cottage at Martha's Vineyard, two different bedrooms and a New York City restaurant.

Performances and tickets

Performances of "Dinner With Friends" will be Mondays-Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., and Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., Jan. 9-26 at Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre. All seats are reserved. Tickets range from $18 to $37. For reservations, call 581-6961. PTC management cautions that while parking is available in adjacent lots during the entire run of the play, space is limited in many areas due to advance preparations for the 2002 Winter Olympics. Patrons are advised to carpool and allow 10-15 minutes of additional time. Also, the University TRAX line to Rice-Eccles Stadium is now running. The station is just one block south of the theater.