Review: The Dinner – Upstage Productions / pivotal(arts)

Raise your hand if you’ve ever had to sit through an awkward and tense holiday dinner. This rite of passage is the setting for local playwright Jason Murray’s The Dinner, playing at the St. Vladimir Institute theatre.

Eight friends who have known each other for years get together for their annual Thanksgiving dinner, but apparently the yearly event has been building up yearly tensions among the group, which come to a head on this fateful night.

The tension starts right off the top with Grace (Breanne teBoekhorst) and Lance (Andrew Knowlton), the hosts of the evening, who are having personal problems of their own. Their guests include the high-status couple Denise and Greg (Jennifer De Lucia and Daniel Stolfi), new-relationship couple Tina and Hayden (Deanna L. Palazzo and Sean Kaufmann) and the starving-but-fulfilled artist couple, Fiona and Ronny (Jessie Gabe and Trevor Small).

If all those names are making your head swim a little, that’s because it does take a while to get them all straight while watching the play. Fortunately, each character is given their turn at a monologue, which helps to cement their personality for the audience. This is a sophisticated group, philosophizing over fine wine, about consumerism, rare art or modern relationships.

The layer of sophistication that they are all trying so hard to maintain cracks quite quickly, though, as one of the romantic relationships crumbles, and some of the friends are shown to resent the money, status or freedom of someone else. Palazzo’s character is the armchair psychiatrist of the group, diagnosing everyone’s problems without being able to acknowledge her own until it’s too late.

I won’t spoil the ending, but for a play that packs a lot of emotional punches, it ends on a rather soft note. I’m choosing to interpret this as meaning that there are always going to be diamonds in the muck, good moments amongst a slew of bad ones, if only we can stop long enough to look for them.

Pivotal(arts) is a young and energetic ensemble of actors, who I remember enjoying during their WriteNOW! Festival last spring. The cast all work hard, but I found Daniel Stolfi to be a pretty good stand-out, his character being a sharp-witted ego-driven doctor. I also liked how Fiona and Ronny’s characters contrasts with the others; they have the least money, but seem the most genuinely happy.

I think Murray, Upstage Productions and pivotal(arts) should be commended for staging a show that asks the questions of what friendship and relationships mean in this digital consumer age. The answers that The Dinner comes up with are sometimes ugly, but they’re honest.

Details:

The Dinner is playing at St Vladimir Institute, (620 Spadina Avenue) until Octpber 29, 2011.

– Show times are Wed. Oct. 19th to Sat. Oct. 22nd, and Tues. Oct. 25th to Sat. Oct. 29th at 8:00 p.m.

– Tickets are $20 at the door and $15 online.

– Tickets can be purchased at the door or online at www.thedinner.eventbrite.com

Photo: Back row: Trevor Small, Jessie Gabe and Andrew Knowlton. Front row: Jennifer De Lucia, Daniel Stolfi, Deanna L. Palazzo, and Sean Kauffmann