Donald Margulies' play Dinner with Friends was written, he says, like all his works, "to reflect observations I'm having at that time in my life ... All around us, relationships are changing, marriages are breaking up. It's those notions of impermanence, the yearning for something else that I'm tapping into.'' And it appears that Margulies has also tapped into audiences all over the country and now all over the world as his play enjoys international success.
Dinner with Friends began as a commissioned work for the Actors Theater of Louisville and had its world premiere at the 1998 Humana Festival of New American Plays. It then played in California's South Coast Repertory and, quite unusually, in Paris before opening off Broadway in New York in 1999. In 2000, it won the coveted Pulitzer Prize for drama. Currently, there continue to be simultaneous productions all over the country, and a made-for-television movie is in the making. So just what is so appealing about the notion of impermanence and the yearning for something else that makes this play so universally popular? That's simple. Everyone relates to these themes. As critic Michael Phillips noted, Dinner with Friends has become"a. Zeitgeist pop culture item'' like the movie The Big Chill was in the early 1980s. Phillips says that the audience identifies so much with the characters that "watching this show in performance is like attending a mass nodding seminar." And Phillips doesn'tmean that the audience is falling asleep. On the contrary, they are nodding their heads in agreement and laughing in recognition
Whether members of the audience can relate to the forty-something couples who come of age in the radical seventies, become parents under the Reagan administration, and then either solidify or lose touch with their long-term relationships, the play exposes the same, universal insecurities that people face every time there are shattering changes in their lives. Marguhes' characters are real. They are normal. They are family, friends, and the people next door. They are people facing their fears.
Act 1, Scene 1
In the opening scene of Dinner with Friends, Gabe and Karen have cooked a splendid dinner and dessert for their friends, Beth and Tom. However, Tom couldn't come because, as Beth tells them, he had to fly to Washington. From upstairs come the noises of four children, who are watching a video while the adults talk downstairs.
Gabe and Karen have recently come back from a vacation in Italy. They love cooking, and so they describe their trip to Beth in terms of food. Beth is noticeably distracted but grunts responses so her friends will think that she is interested. When Karen, feeling insecure, finally notices that Beth is distracted, she concludes that something must have been wrong with the dinner. Beth assures Karen that the dinner was wonderful So Karen returns to thinking about her trip, making a couple of side comments to release her guilt about traveling without her children. She also feels a little guilty about having gone on the trip without Beth.
Minutes later. Beth breaks down in tears and confesses that her husband, Tom, has left her. Awkward phrases fly out of the mouths of Karen and Gabe. "You're kidding."' says Karen. "Who?" asks Gabe. when Beth says that Tom is in love with someone else. Beth's side of the story is, of course, biased, Tom is the bad guy. Beth didn't see it coming; she "didn't have a clue ..." The scene ends with all three adults solacing themselves with a rich dessert.
Act I, Scene 2
Later that same night at Beth and Tom's house, Beth is getting ready for bed, when Tom surprises her by walking into the bedroom. Beth is angry. She threatens to change the locks. She feels that Tom has no right to just walk in anymore.
They make small talk about the weather and the kids, and then Tom asks about the dinner at Karen and Gabe's. After a few words, he can tell that Beth told them about their breakup. Now Tom is angry. He wanted to be there. He wanted to tell them his side of the story. He knows that Beth has slanted the story in her favor.
Tom demands that Beth tell him all the details. He wants to know what she said: how she said it: and what Gabe and Karen's reactions were. He is sincerely concerned. He is afraid that Beth has turned his friends against him. Both tempers are hot now. They both bring up details from the past, hurling indignities at one another. A synopsis of their history is brought forth, and when Tom steps over a personal boundary, Beth slaps him. Tom grabs her and asks, "You wanna fight?" And with this physical contact initiated, and while they continue to curse one another, a sexual energy builds between them, and they eventually fall onto the bed and consummate their argument silently, on a purely physical level.
Act 1, Scene 3
Karen and Gabe are absorbed in the aftermath of learning that their closest friends have separated. They are not sure what to make of it. How will this affect them? Karen is the most bitter. She has turned Tom into the villain and Beth into the victim. But Karen is thinking not just of Beth and Tom. She is thinking about what it would be like if Gabe left her. "You do something like this," Karen says to Gabe, "I'm telling you right now. you are outta here." She is telling Gabe that he had better not even think about it. No flings. No moments of weakness. No excuses. One mistake and it is over.
Gabe acquiesces. He puts his head in her lap, and they return to their discussion of how the breakup of their friends' marriage will affect them. And that's when they see the headlights of a car in their driveway. Tom has driven over in a snowstorm to make sure that he has not lost his friends. Karen finds it impossible to be civil to Tom. Gabe finds it impossible not to try to save him. In the end, Tom leaves, unable to explain himself,...
(The entire section is 1567 words.)