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Tension is served in ‘The Dinner,’ a feast of outstanding acting

The husbands of Katelyn (Rebecca Hall, left) and Claire (Laura Linney) are brothers in "The Dinner." | The Orchard

The food and the drink and the ambience and the service at the restaurant: top of the line.

The conversation: often toxic, with side dishes of sarcasm, lingering resentment, blunt confrontation and some surprising reveals.

Even a seemingly innocent query can turn nasty.

“How’s Beau?” says one mother to another.

Why did you ask specifically about Beau? comes the response. I have more than one child — but you asked about Beau.

The unspoken reply: Because Beau’s the resident bleep-up of your brood, sweetheart.

Writer-director Oren Moverman’s tart, cynical, smart and slightly surreal “The Dinner” is in the tradition of such domestic explosion movies as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “Closer.” (It’s not in the same league as those films, but it’s in the neighborhood.)

There’s a certain emotional gaper’s block level of fascination with watching characters who once loved each other now tearing at one another’s throats — though at times it gets so brutal we’d like to quietly tiptoe out of the room and thank the heavens OUR lives are nothing like that.

On the heels of an outstanding performance in “Norman,” Richard Gere serves up another fine piece of work as Stan Lohman, a slick, popular, glad-handing, forever-on-the-cell-phone United States congressman running for governor. Rebecca Hall (whose work always jumps off the screen) plays Stan’s younger wife Katelyn, who used to work for Stan and seems less than enthralled with the current state of their romantic dynamic.

Steve Coogan is Stan’s younger brother Paul, a history teacher with obvious resentment issues about his older sibling, and Laura Linney is Paul’s wife Claire.

To say these couples aren’t close with each other is an understatement. (“Here’s to getting through this dinner in one piece,” is Paul’s idea of a toast at the outset of the evening.)

But at Stan’s behest, the two couples get together at an upscale restaurant to talk about their 16-year-old sons, who are friends and are in deep trouble.

Writer-director Moverman divides the story into chapters labeled as courses, e.g., “Appetizer,” “Digestif,” “Aperitif,” etc. Through conversations at the dinner table, with flashbacks expertly sprinkled in, we gradually learn more about each of the four dinner partners — and about the horrific incident involving their two sons, and what lengths their parents are willing to go to in order to protect their kids (and their own futures as well).

One parent says their boys are essentially good and should be given a break. Another says if they’re allowed to get away with the terrible thing they’ve done, what will become of them? Perhaps it’s best they face the consequences now.

“The Dinner” was adapted from a best-selling novel by Herman Koch, but it has the feel of a stage work brought to the screen. At times the exchanges seem written with almost too much precision, but overall the dialogue is authentic and powerful, sometimes shockingly so.

As you might expect from this cast, all four leads are simply outstanding. In a movie world filled with intergalactic explosions, it remains a welcome thing to experience the kind of fireworks that take place between three-dimensional, deeply flawed characters grappling with major issues in a civilized setting, their true emotions often bubbling to the surface.

★★★

The Orchard presents a film written and directed by Oren Moverman, based on the book by Herman Koch. Rated R (for disturbing violent content, and language throughout). Running time: 120 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.