Dinner with Friends

by Donald Margulies

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1671

Beth is Tom's wife and Karen's best friend. She is an artist of questionable talent. She is also the antithesis of Karen. She can't cook, is totally unorganized, and leans more on her emotions to direct her life than on her rational thoughts. As a couple, she and her husband, Tom, stand as models directly opposed to the couple represented by Gabe and Karen Beth is not very communicative or supportive of her husband.

Beth flounders in her art and seems to lack direction in her life. She is also a bit manipulative. She leans on Karen during the initial stages of the separation between her and Tom, then she disappears once she finds someone else to lean on. In the end, the audience also discovers that Beth is not very honest or open with Karen.

It's hard to tell how serious Beth is. In a flashback to the time when Beth and Tom first meet, Beth appears to be consumed with being an artist Her conversations are filled with images of light and color. But her conversations appear showy, and she refuses to show Tom her sketches. She is also judgmental, summing Tom up with mean-spirited statements And yet, she claims she hates labels "Why not just take it at face value?'' she asks defensively when Tom asks her what style of art she follows.

In her last scene with Karen, Beth comes to see herself in a new light It's not the light that her friend Karen would like to see her in, but it is a light that makes Beth feel good about herself. She has shaken off an old skin, like a snake coming out of hibernation. She was so enthralled with Karen in the past that she thought she wanted to be Karen. With the impetus of her husband leaving her, Beth has re-evaluated herself and found something new inside of her. "We can't all be like you, Karen," Beth says "God knows I've tried. No matter how much / stir, my soup still sticks to the pot."

Gabe, like his wife, Karen, is in his forties and writes about food for a living Tom is Gabe's best friend, and although Gabe does not seem to have much affection for Beth, he is nice to her because she is Tom's wife and Karen's best friend

Overall, Gabe lives an orderly and structured life. Every summer he takes his wife and children to the same island home that he has been going to since he was a child. He and his wife, Karen, seem perfectly matched. They are like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle They know one another so well that their conversations fit together, one piece overlapping the other, as they finish one another's sentences. Knowing one another so well, however, can also bring a kind of boredom into their life. And it is this sheath of boredom that is exposed when Gabe listens to Tom's new outlook on life.

Gabe tries to play the role of the peacemaker. He wants to see life from all angles. He might not agree with what his friend Tom has done, but he is not as critical about the situation as his wife is. He understands that life and people are complex. Gabe is also the peacemaker because he doesn't like to rock the boat; he likes the status quo. He wants to avoid messes. Gabe often has to be prompted to speak his mind about his emotions. He is often quiet because he does not want to cause any trouble. But once he opens up, he pretty much lets it all come out.

Gabe is also somewhat child-like. He has an innocence about him One of his favorite ways to woo his wife is to play a silly little game—a game a father might play with his child to make the child laugh The game sounds trivial when it first appears in act 2. But at the end of the play, when Gabe begins playing the game again in the heat of a serious talk with Karen, his intention behind the game is a little more obvious Gabe is using the game to try to rekindle the romance in their relationship—to take them back to a time when the mundane things of life were not such a huge factor in their lives. The game and theplay end on Gabe's line: "A man's got to do what a man's got to do."

Karen, a woman in her forties, is Gabe's wife. She has been married to Gabe for more than twelve years. Karen and Gabe are international food writers. She also considers herself close friends first with Beth and then with Tom. She manages two houses and a couple of kids; she travels all over the world and maintains a profession. She is, as Los Angeles critic Michael Phillips puts it, living "a life ruled by cuisine and color-coded domesticity." But there are edges about her that make the audience realize that she is not very confident. She questions her abilities and is rigid and unforgiving when someone violates her high principles Her orderly life indicates an attempt to control her world, something that someone suffering from insecurities would do.

Karen likes to have her friends Beth and Gabe over for dinner. She wants them to like her for her culinary flair and her exciting travel experiences. She elaborates details of food and travel to her friend Beth, unaware of Beth's lack of interest in both areas. Karen is so involved in proving that she is someone whom Beth should like that she is totally caught off guard when Beth announces that her husband, Tom, has left her. Karen had no clue that her best friend's marriage was in trouble. And later in the play, Karen worries that maybe she is the cause of Beth's problems. Karen, after all, was the one who introduced Beth to Tom.

Karen immediately sides with Beth once she is told Beth's version of how the marriage fell apart, and she refuses to consider Tom's side She is somewhat blinded by Beth. She thinks that Beth is a great artist, an accolade that no one else (even Beth, eventually) confers on Beth's work. Not until later, after Beth has almost miraculously recovered from her separation from her husband, does Karen even consider that Beth might be at least partially responsible for the demise of her marriage. At this point in the play, Karen is also a little jealous of Beth. She notes how thin and pretty Beth looks, rejuvenated by her newfound love.

In the end, Karen faces her husband's insinuation that Beth might have had sex with a man other than her husband during the course of her marriage. In other words, maybe Beth is not as innocent as Karen portrays her. Although Karen feels distanced from Beth, the changes in her friend make Karen reflect on the condition of her own marriage. She might disagree with how Beth has changed her life, but she envies Beth's new energy. This makes Karen have a dream in which she sees a wide gap between who she was when she first married (when she was in the infatuation stage of a romantic relationship, as Beth currently is) and who she has become. She senses that she may have lost a part of herself by settling into a mundane, middle-aged contentedness. "How do we not get lost?" she asks Gabe at the end of the play.

Tom is a lawyer and a college friend of Gabe's. He's also the estranged husband of Beth. It's easy to classify him as a ladies' man, which he admits was a role he played in his youth. But it's a role that he tries to deny when he explains why he has left Beth for another woman. In a review for the Los Angeles Times, Michael Phillips calls Tom an "ambiguous creation, a carelessly sensual jock with an insecure streak."

Tom's introduction in the play comes when he rushes over to his friends' house in the middle of a snowstorm so he can explain his side of the story of why he has left his wife But as distraught as he wants to appear, in the middle of his explanation he stops not only to eat some food that has been offered but also to comment on it quite lavishly Tom and Gabe's relationship goes back even further than Gabe and Karen's. Tom used to steal Gabe's girlfriends in college—a fact that makes it hard to think of him as being a victim in this breakup. It's also hard to think of him as having deep emotions, since he has sex with his wife in the middle of a big argument, after he has already left her for another woman These are the elements that make him appear ambiguous.

In the flashback to the time when Tom first meets Beth, Tom accuses Gabe and Karen of trying to set him up with Beth. Karen tells him it's not a setup at all and that he shouldn't think of it in that way because that sounds so cheap and scheming. Tom's reply is, "That's okay with me. I have no problem with cheap and scheming." But this is a statement that Tom would like to recant later in the play, when he is describing his relationship with the new woman in his life. He's more sincere in this scene. He doesn't say the things that his friend Gabe wants to hear, but what he does say is said with a new exhilaration. Tom has come to a point in his life when he has stopped being who he thinks other people want him to be. Whether his best friend likes it or not, Tom is reclaiming life He does not want the life that Gabe wants. He does not want the life that his father wants. He no longer wants to live an "inauthentic" life.

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