In an interview conducted shortly after Dinner with Friends received the 2000 Pulitzer Prize in drama, Margulies mused that loss is a common theme in all of his plays. Earlier plays like Sight Unseen (pr. 1991, pb. 1992) and What’s Wrong with This Picture? (pr. 1985, pb. 1988) feature characters who struggle with lost values, lost love, or lost hope. Often this loss occurs within a tumultuous family unit, reflecting the author’s desire to find his father. More recently, Dinner with Friends and Collected Stories: A Play (pr. 1996, pb. 1998) focus deeply upon the impact of changing relationships among family and friends. While themes of loss and alienation within the family setting have been the focus of many of Margulies’s plays, Dinner with Friends is the first of his plays to explore both themes with such clarity. Certainly, The Loman Family Picnic (pr., pb. 1989) spins a wickedly absurd tale around a desperately unhappy family. However, Margulies’s approach in Dinner with Friends seems more seasoned, less anxious. In Dinner with Friends, Margulies speaks with the voice of middle age.
Perhaps that maturing explains the play’s real resonance. Dinner with Friends takes the audience on a very personal, unpredictable journey through the soul of marital relationships and the interconnectedness that many postwar “Baby Boomers” feel with friends who seem closer than family. Margulies’s characters shimmer, not because they are articulate but because their motives and passions are complex. The audience’s perception of them shifts from scene to scene. In this respect, Dinner with Friends rises above the typical domestic drama.
Beyond the single flashback, the play adopts very few dramatic conventions, which is surprising when one examines Margulies’s canon. Earlier works relied upon highly theatrical techniques. The Loman Family Picnic concludes with three false endings, three fantasies nurtured by the protagonists. The Model Apartment (pr. 1988, pb. 1990) features two daughters, one killed during the Holocaust and one named after her dead sibling, who are played by the same actress. Drawing upon his training as a visual artist, Margulies uses collage to intertwine past and present in Sight Unseen.
Dinner with Friends shares much with Margulies’s earlier plays. The effects of shaken faith upon relationships, the flavor of loss, and the value of family run deep in Margulies’s work. However, Dinner with Friends speaks more directly to a generation that fears its moorings have come loose.