Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1567
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, unable to gain a sense of empathy and understanding from either of his friends.
Act 2, Scene 1
This is a flashback scene to over twelve years prior to the first act. Gabe and Karen are in an old family house on Martha's Vineyard. Gabe and Karen are newiyweds. They have invited both Tom and Beth to stay with them. This is Tom and Beth's initial meeting, This is also the only scene in which all four characters appear together.
Karen seems to have been the instigator in arranging this meeting between Tom and Beth. Gabe is neutral about the idea. He isn't very impressed with Beth. His friend Tom has a long history of being a player, in reference to women, and Gabe doesn't believe Tom is ready to commit to a serious relationship.
When Beth and Tom finally come face to face, Beth is aloof and sarcastic. Tom is a bit rude. He also sets up an image that will ring throughout the rest of the play when he says, "Gee, it's really generous of you guys to be setting your friends up. I guess you just want us to be as happy as you are, huh?'' This sentiment is repeated later m the play during discussions between Tom and Gabe and Karen and Beth, as issues of identity are brought out.
A discussion ensues of how wonderful marriage is. Beth and Tom quite easily get drawn into the lure of what the settled comforts of marriage could bring. They use Karen and Gabe as role models and hope that they too can fit into the same mold. This scene, of course, contrasts with the opening scenes, where everything about this ill-fated union between Beth and Tom has fallen apart.
Act 2, Scene 2
Back to the present, but five months have passed since Beth and Tom have split up, Karen and Beth have not seen each other for a while. Beth is still playing for sympathy, as she complains about how awful Tom is as an absent father.
Many changes have taken place in Beth's life. These changes are hard for Karen to accept. Whether she is jealous or just can't see Beth going down a road that differs from her own, Karen continues to talk to Beth as if she made a big mistake.
It is in this scene that Beth tells Karen that she could not be like Karen. She also tells Karen that she doesn't want to play the role of Karen's dupe—"I was The Mess, The Ditz, The Comic Relief."
Act 2, Scene 3
Tom and Gabe meet in a bar. The men's conversation parallels the women's Tom looks fit and energized. Gabe thinks Tom has stepped off the path and needs to be brought back in. Tom, on the other hand, thinks that Gabe is in denial, and that Gabe needs prompting to make a similar move to get out of his marriage.
Tom's view represents a general opinion of many married couples of his tune. He grew up with parents who stayed together not because they were in love, but because they wanted to keep up the appearance that they were a happy family. For the sake of the children was a popular phrase that referred to the fact that a married couple would stay together, even if they were miserable, because they thought it was best for their children. Tom doesn't want to repeat his parents' mistakes.
Gabe represents the other side of the issue. Although it's not easy to keep a marriage alive, it is worth the effort. Gabe believes that all Tom has to do is exert more effort in order to save his marriage. The men end this scene, knowing that neither has convinced the other of his point of view.
Act 2, Scene 4
Gabe and Karen are at home, getting ready for bed. They discuss their separate meetings with Tom and Beth, comparing notes on what each has learned. One of the most startling pieces of news is that Tom has insinuated that Beth had an extramarital affair ten years prior to the couple's breakup. This fact makes Beth appear less a victim than Karen had first imagined.
But it is not so much the thought of the other couple that is gnawing on Gabe and Karen's thoughts. It is the meaning of long-term relationships What are the benefits of staying married to one person for so long? How do people keep long-term relationships alive? How do they rejuvenate themselves without finding new lovers, new identities?
Karen relates a dream she had in which she saw a split between who she and Gabe were when they were first married and who they have become since then. Gabe first reacts to the dream by thinking that the younger, more invigorated couple might have been Beth and Tom But Karen denies this. "They were us," she confirms. Gabe is reluctant to talk about her dream and what it means, but Karen insists. She wants to find a bridge back to that couple, back to their original and spontaneous feelings for one another. Gabe's response is to end the play with a little game, in which he warns Karen that he is going to scare her. The game makes them both laugh.
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