Dinner with Friends at the Zephyr Theatre and Hay Fever, the Musical at Torrance Theatre Company

Gabe and Karen invite Tom and Beth over for dinner which leads to secrets being revealed. (L-R): Jack Esformes, Marieh Delfino, Leith Burke, and Amy Motta in Dinner with Friends at the Zephyr Theatre. (Photo credit: Kerttu Karon)

By Shari Barrett

Donald Margulies’ 2000 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Dinner with Friends, which was later adapted for the 2001 HBO film of the same name starring Dennis Quaid, Andie MacDowell, Greg Kinnear, and Toni Collette, tells the story about two married couples, Gabe and Karen & Tom and Beth, who have been best friends for years and their relationship with each other over time. With scenes told not in chronological order, I found myself making assumptions about each situation, especially when cheating was involved, only to find out there was more going on in the past than was revealed in future scenes. But as the play evolved, it made me realize that you never really know what is going on behind the couples’ closed doors, so placing blame where it should not be can often challenge the very basis of their friendship.

Director and Producer Peter Allas shares, “This play is a reflection of what all couples go through and whether they are willing to examine – or not – marriage, friendship, commitment, or even betrayal in any form, and deal with the possibility of loneliness when it is always evolving.”

Producer Michael Donovan shares, “The story is universal, and audiences will recognize the characters’ struggles from their own relationships.”

Thus, this true slice-of-life examination of relationships will get you thinking about whether it’s better to remain married when the flame burns out for the sake of your kids and financial security, or enjoy a non-committed single life, will definitely get you thinking about couples you know and, most likely, how you have chosen to live your life. And for what reasons? And are you happy? 

Dinner with Friends features Jack Esformes as Gabe with Marieh Delfino as his wife Karen, who begin their marriage living a comfortable life near the beach on Martha’s Vineyard. Their life-long best friends, who they fixed up on a blind date, are Leith Burke as Tom and Amy Motta as Beth. But from the first moment Tom and Beth meet, it’s easy to see why these two are not marriage material and eventually will be happier living the single life. But perhaps Gabe and Karen are envious of their friends – or is it the other way around? It’s a balancing act each of us teeter with more often than we’d like to admit.

Kudos to all four actors who authentically offer a glimpse into these complicated and judgmental people, Tom and Beth demonstrating why making up after fighting can be so fulfilling. But why does the struggle to impress others often rule our lives when the best way to be happy is to just be your true self?  And given the amount of food and several scenic changes designed by Brad Bentz, kudos also go to stage manager Angelica Estevez and her assistants for paying close attention to detail while offering delightfully entertaining scene transitions.  

Dinner with Friends by Donald Margulies is presented by Adriano Aragon/Foursome Productions and Peter Allas, in association with Michael Donovan, directed by Peter Allas, running through April 28 (with possible extension) on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave. in Los Angeles. With intimate, up close audience seating, you will feel like a fly on the wall as secrets are revealed. Tickets run $35 – $45, available by calling (323) 965-9996 or at www.OnStage411.com/Friends. Street parking only so arrive early and read parking signs carefully.

The cast of Hay Fever, the Musical at Torrance Theatre Company includes (seated L-R) Jay Miramontes, Dana Weisman, Shirley Hatton, Lyndsay Palmer, Canute Peterson. (standing L-R) Cindy Shields, Perry Shields, Chassey Bennett, and Christopher Tiernan. (Photo credit: Mickey Elliot)

Based on the 1924 hit play by Noël Coward, Hay Fever, the Musical with book and lyrics by David Howard, music by Bret Simmons, is now onstage at Torrance Theatre Company, directed by Glenn Kelman with choreography by Katisha Adams. The story is a cross between high farce and a comedy of manners set in an English country house in the 1920s, centering around four eccentric members of the Bliss family and their outlandish behavior when they each invite a guest to spend the weekend – mostly to alleviate their boredom living away from London. And what a crazy weekend it turns out to be in the family’s attempt to live a less humdrum life.

Always desiring to be the center of attention is the Bliss family matriarch, Judith (Shirley Hatton), a successful actress, and her husband David (Perry Shields) a true country gentleman working on his latest book. Their two grown children, daughter Sorel (Chassey Bennett, who is luminous in the role) and son Simon (Christopher Tiernan, whose over-the-top gay demeanor seems out of place when he chooses to only pursue female guests) assist in transforming what should be a quiet country weekend into a whirlwind of head games and romantic entanglements. 

The weekend guests include Richard Greatham (handsome Jay Miramontes), invited by Sorel as a possible boyfriend; Simon’s guest Myra Arundel (Dana Weisman who shines singing “Stuck on Stage”); Judith’s latest boy toy Sandy Tyrell (tall Canute Peterson); and lovely Lyndsay Palmer as Jackie Croyton, a pure embodiment of Betty Boop invited by David to be his writing muse. 

But it is Cindy Shields as the Bliss family’s maid Clara who steals the show, often breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the audience about the craziness taking place around her. And it’s apparent she has seen it all over the years. I loved her comment as the weekend begins, “This has all the promise of the launch of the Titanic.” Truer words never spoken. Cindy’s perfect comedic timing and lovely singing voice are used to perfection opening each of the two acts as she wheels her tea cart around the stage.

The entire cast has lovely singing voices, accompanied on keyboard by Bret Simmons, the musical’s composer. But there was something lacking in Glenn Felman’s direction, which often seemed way over-the-top with broad line delivery and gestures which made the actors seem to be presenting caricatures rather than real characters. But since this is a farce (with five doors on Cary Jordahl’s scenic design), perhaps that’s exactly what Kellman intended. Katisha Adams’ energetic choreography was performed with great eagerness by the cast, although very cramped on the small stage playing area. Lovely costumes designed by Bradley Allen Lock are a highlight of the production.

Hay Fever, the Musical continues through April 27, with very limited seating available for shows on Friday/Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday/Sunday at 2 p.m. Torrance Theatre Company is located at 1316 Cabrillo Ave. in Torrance 90501. For more info and to check on ticket availability, email: FriendsofTTC@gmail.com or call the box office at 424-243-6882.