BY DAVID KENNERLEY | For most people, a weekend getaway in the country with good friends is a slice of heaven — a carefree break from the demands of workaday life, sipping wine, sharing good meals and conversation, and taking in the fresh air.
Dramatist Michael Perlman is not one of those people. In his absorbing, gloriously chaotic new play, “At the Table,” such escapes can have a dark underbelly. The gifted playwright (he also directs) is acutely attuned to the prickly logistics and interpersonal dynamics a weekend retreat can bring. And the struggle to balance one’s own needs with those of the group.
Who takes charge of meals? Do you offer to clear the table and wash the dishes? Who has to crash on the couch? What do you do if the bathroom door won’t lock? Are you a loser if you refuse to smoke pot? Is it impolite to have sex?
But the hyperaware playwright delves even deeper. The savvy, articulate friends are game for vigorous debates about tinderbox issues like abortion, race, gay marriage, and gender equality. Even the topic of slavery gets hashed out. That’s right — slavery.
Perlman, the GLAAD award-winning author of “From White Plains,” has assembled a fairly diverse group, all hovering around 30 years old, and half the fun is trying to determine who’s who. In Act I, seated around the dinner table are Lauren (Rachel Christopher), a black woman who seems to enjoy the caretaker role, and her jerky blowhard of a boyfriend, Stuart (Craig Wesley Divino).
Elliot (Jimmy King), a mopey gay man, has brought a childhood friend, Chris (Claire Karpen), an attractive feminist who is having a rough time fitting in to the tight-knit group. Another newbie is Lauren’s friend Nicholas (Jude Sandy), a gay man originally from Trinidad who gets stuck sleeping on the couch. Finally there’s Nate (Aaron Rossini), a young, stay-at-home dad whose parents own the country house.
Fueled by wine, it doesn’t take long for their ragged egos to start bumping up against one another. Agitator Stuart suggests that abortion may be inhumane, which naturally enrages Chris, a director for a women’s organization. She believes that, as a man, he has no right to have an opinion about a woman’s right to choose.
“The terms of a conversation are controlled by who is invited to the table,” she says curtly. “And you’re not invited to that particular table.”
Later, Elliot contemplates whether Chris has the right to be at his table. Why should straights have a say about whether a gay man can marry another man?
As the title suggests, the drama wonders exactly who deserves to be invited to any figurative table. It challenges assumptions we make of strangers based on their appearance, and considers whether the labels we slap on one another — black, white, gay, straight, rich, poor — are more harmful than helpful.
“At the Table,” presented by the Fault Line Theatre company, is at it’s best when injecting levity to offset the profundity. In perhaps the funniest scene, Nicholas bets Nate and Stuart $200 each that he can guess what they were thinking when Chris mentioned, somewhat unexpectedly, that she had a boyfriend. The stakes are raised even higher when Chris gets in on the action.
Act II finds the group has evolved. It’s one year later, and one member has vanished. The newcomers are Leif (Ben Mehl), a cute bi guy whose eternal optimism borders on annoying, and Sophie (Stacey Yen), who has an Asian background and is afraid of offending anyone.
This wildly ambitious endeavor should collapse under the weight of so many needy personalities and heady ideas. And there are shaky moments — exits and entrances are not as fluid as they could be. But thanks to pitch-perfect dialogue, thoughtful direction, and mostly solid performances, it holds up.
Staged in the round at the intimate Mainstage theater at HERE Arts Center, the action is intensified. It almost feels like you could pull up a chair and claim your own place at that clamorous table.
AT THE TABLE | Fault Line Theatre | HERE Arts Center, 145 Sixth Ave. at Dominick St. | Through Jul. 19: Wed.-Sun. at 8:30 p.m. | $29 at here.org or 212-352-3101 | Two hrs., 20 mins., with intermission