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Food, friends and feuds sure to entertain in "Dinner With Friends"

Food and universal issues surrounding couples and their friends are center stage in the New Mexico State University Department of Theatre Arts and the American Southwest Theatre Company's (ASTC) production of "Dinner With Friends" playing March 14-23 at the Hershel Zohn Theatre.

Community member Dave Edwards and theater department head Ruth Cantrell share an embrace over the cutting board in "Dinner With Friends" playing March 14-23 at New Mexico State University's Hershel Zohn Theatre. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

"Dinner With Friends" is a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Donald Margulies that looks at two couples who expect to grow old and fat together and what happens when one couple divorces. The play explores obsessions with food and how couples use food as a safe topic when life's conversations become painful.

"They're very comfortable talking about food and in fact, quite passionate when talking about food," said director and New Mexico State theater faculty and staff member Michael Wise. "But when it comes time to talk about relationships, they're not very adept expressing themselves when talking about feelings."

The food in the play raised unique prop issues when replicating a dinner party on stage. From the full wine glasses on the table to the leftover macaroni and cheese eaten by the children, the set is realistic. Wise said a polenta cake and two lunch plates will be made for and eaten at every performance. Even the cast members had a say in the menu, deciding berries would be better on the cake as opposed to powdered sugar. "We had to figure out what you could eat on stage that wouldn't stick in your throat and you could talk around," he said.

Wise said that the play also is about how divorce affects the people on the outside of the change. "Anytime you are friends with somebody who's in a relationship and that relationship ends, what does it mean to you?" he asked. "Everybody has gone through something like this, even if they've never been married."

Wise said most people are going to recognize a part of themselves in the play and hear their words spoken by these characters. He saw one production of "Dinner With Friends" at another venue and was able to observe the audiences reactions. "I was amazed at how many couples were getting it. It was clear they had just had this conversation and here it is the next night up on stage," he said.

"Dinner With Friends" features three New Mexico State Theatre Arts faculty members as characters. Theater department head Ruth Cantrell plays Karen, assistant professor Tom Smith plays Tom and assistant professor Claudia Billings plays Beth. The cast is completed by community member and actor Dave Edwards as Gabe. Set and lighting design are by Jim Billings and costume design is by New Mexico State student Jessica Settles.

"Dinner With Friends" is produced in association with the American Southwest Theatre Company. ASTC is a non-profit organization that conducts fund-raising activities to hire professional theater artists for productions at New Mexico State University and pay for special costs unique to a production. This season ASTC has brought the Creede Repertory Theatre, guest musicians and a vocal director and scenic designer for "She Loves Me" to New Mexico State. The remaining shows will feature guest dance and fight choreographers, actors, composers and directors.

For tickets or more information, call the ASTC box office at (505) 646-4515.