As a fund-raiser, some Harbor Stage Company supporters watched an online table reading of Brenda Withers’s new play, Dindin, last fall. That may have offered a taste of Withers’s trenchant prose — “lyrical” is how Withers’s character in the play, Darlene, might describe it — and the subtle harmonies and dissonances in all four company founders’ performances.
But there’s no comparison between that reading and the real thing: that is, watching Withers, Jonathan Fielding, Robert Kropf, and Stacy Fischer act their parts onstage in the Harbor Stage’s intimate quarters before an audience that’s masked, well-ventilated, and present. The live experience is electric, and, in a world still raw from the ravages of Covid, a privilege worth far more than the $25 it takes to buy a ticket (for shows through Sept. 5).
The play is a dark, dark comedy of manners, set on a rainy evening at the swanky country home of Pierre (Kropf) and Emily (Fischer), who have invited installation artist Darlene and Ricky (Fielding), a local furniture designer and builder, to dinner. Each character has an agenda that is ultimately thwarted. Emily hopes to impress her husband, her guests, and herself with her graciousness as a host and with her tasteful meal. She also seems to have set up a meet-cute encounter for Darlene and Ricky, who are unattached. This is at cross-purposes with husband Pierre, who may have eyes on Darlene, and vice versa. Ricky, who has built a stool or a bench for Emily and Pierre — what the commission actually was is in dispute — has brought his handiwork to dinner and hopes to get paid. He also seems keen on Darlene. Poor Emily, who is leaving for the city the next day, is no one’s object of interest, and she suffers mightily for it. When she goes missing in the middle of things, it’s only her absence that people care about.
Each character in this ionized situation is articulate and uses words as weapons. The frequent subject of discussion, though voices are rarely raised, is violence — in particular, the murder of animals or people, and the morality of savoring what you kill. The prospect of watching a quartet of fine not-so-young cannibals having a go at it may not sound like a fun evening, but the buttery-smooth delivery of Withers and Fielding and the dyspeptic awkwardness of Fischer and Kropf make for a dazzling stew.
The arguments and traits of the characters — from the quality of arts and crafts to deer hunting and upper-class privilege — are familiar but never clichéd. With Dindin, Withers proves herself a masterful writer. The company, as it sometimes does, has apparently directed itself: no one is credited except Brendan Hughes as “directing consultant” — he’s in post-production with a filmed version of the play that was shot this spring. Whoever did the pacing and blocking, what happens onstage works like a charm — pregnant pauses and dramatic surprises are loaded and fired with remarkable precision.
Every character has a sympathetic side and a moral comeuppance, even the straight-talking and falsely chivalrous Ricky, who paws Darlene without consent. Kropf’s unctuous Pierre is perhaps the most despicable of the group, but when wife Emily fully reveals herself, it’s clear that this affluent, snivelly couple deserve each other.
Being indoors in the dark is a tremendous advantage for the Harbor Stage Company. Recent productions at the Provincetown Theater and Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater try to compensate for the daylight and openness of outdoor staging and turn it into an advantage, or, at the very least, mitigate the distractions. But the intense focus afforded the audience at Dindin is at the heart of the play’s success: it’s why it feels so different from the video table reading. Watching four polished pros do their thing under the bright lights is a genuine thrill.
And there may be a message here as well. The transactional cynicism of the characters in Dindin is reminiscent of Pinter but more baroque. It’s not a direct allegory of the depraved right-wing politics of our current era and how we deal with it, but there are hints. And that makes the play, in a precise and limited way, a cautionary tale.
Eat Your Heart Out
The event: Dindin, a new play by Brenda Withers
The time: From Saturday, Aug. 21 through Sept. 5: Thursday through Saturday, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, 5 p.m.
The place: Harbor Stage Company, 15 Kendrick Ave., Wellfleet (enter at rear)
The cost: $25