Dinner with Friends

by Donald Margulies

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Overview of Dinner With Friends

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Margulies' Dinner with Friends is about what happens to couples and relationships when the illusion of solidity comes face to face with abrupt and shattering change. The experience can be as devastating as an earthquake: the sudden realization that the earth, which at one moment feels rock-hard underfoot, suddenly feels, at best, as insubstantial as a great pool of rolling waves. Then there are the aftershocks. That's where the point of Margulies' play is focused, on the aftershocks, the reflections on the meanings of the initial jolts of change.

When Margulies says, in an interview with Theron Albis, that his intention with this play is to "enlighten theatergoers ... let them see aspects of their own lives that they might not otherwise consider, or they maybe never articulated before,'' he is referring to the aftershocks—not to the actual circumstances or details of divorce but to the consequences of that earthshaking event. How does divorce affect Beth and Tom? How does divorce affect their children9 And more importantly, how does this divorce affect the lives of their friends, Karen and Gabe? Added to these questions is the focus of this essay: How does Margulies present these aspects, and how does he articulate them?

Margulies" presentation is evenhanded. He portrays al! sides of an issue. He begins his play with a threesome, Beth with Karen and Gabe. This sets up the premise of the absent partner; a component of one couple is missing. He next shows the separating couple, Beth and Tom, and then returns to the couple that is still intact, Karen and Gabe. He ends the first act with another threesome: this time it is Tom with Karen and Gabe, rounding the picture with another version of the absent partner. This first act is an introduction to how Margulies is going to look at the topic of divorce throughout the rest of the play, both evenhandcdly and from all different points of view.' "One of the things that I try to do,'' says Margulies in the Albis interview, "is to give voice and credence to all sides of an argument." He does this, he says, so that "people leave the theater really grappling with what they've just seen."

So what does the audience see, and how does Margulies articulate the consequences of that all-pervasive social construct of divorce that still sweeps through the lives of so many American families? And what is he articulating thai, according to Margulies* belief, may normally remain mute? What do many people have trouble talking about? Well, the answer might very well be found in fear, or better yet, anxiety. What could be harder to talk about than something that causes anxiety, which in many cases is suppressed by the person who is experiencing it? According to current psychological definitions, fear is a realistic reaction to actual danger, whereas anxiety can be a reaction to an unconscious threat. So how does Margulies articulate these anxieties through his characters, first Tom and Beth and then Karen and Gube? Welt, Margulies does it very subtly, with empty space, or silence, rather than with words. He combines evenhanded-ness with empty space and comes up with an effective and alluring way to draw in his audience.

Beth is probably the most transparent character of the play. First of all, she is well aware of her fear ot beiny let! alone. "What's so great aboul being alone?" she asks, when Karen (in act 2, scene 2) thinks that Beth is running too fast into a new marriage so soon after her divorce. Beth obviously does not like being alone, does...

(This entire section contains 1540 words.)

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not want to indulge herself, does not want to "get to know" herself better by taking time off between relationships to heal her wounds, to make herself whole again. She feels whole only with a man in her life. Without a man she is flighty, erratic, a "mess." And although Beth thinks that she has put her finger on what her anxieties are and thus has found a solution to her problems, she is still a bit confused.

In this dialogue with Karen, Beth first defines her former self (while married to Tom) as being "artsy and incompetent." She says that she tried and failed to compete with Karen in this former state. Then in her next breath, she states that in rinding a new man. and contemplating a new marriage, she is showing "signs of being on an equal footing" with Karen. Unfortunately, Beth is still trying to be like Karen. Margulies presents this scene setting up Karen and Beth neither as positive nor negative models but rather depicting two women who define their identities both within and outside of a relationship in two different ways.

Beth's husband, Tom, also may be a bit confused about his identity, for Margulies appears to set Tom up as the most vulnerable of the characters; he is suffering from the symptoms of a midlife crisis, which tends to cause people to make dramatic changes in their lives, usually under a lot of psychological stress. Again, Margulies does not make a judgment on this character, but one of the questions that the audience has to answer is this: Is Tom making responsible decisions? "Look what you've done to me!" Tom exclaims in the midst of a bitter argument with Beth. Reading into this proclamation, the audience hears the following: I am not responsible for my own actions.

A little later in the same act, Tom comes over to Karen and Gabe's house to talk about his plans for divorce. But before he begins to explain himself, when the subject of food is brought up, Tom asks if there is any cake left. Karen is astonished that Tom even knew about the cake."You talk about cakeT' she asks. "Yeah," Tom replies. "Why not?" What is implied here is rather obvious. Here is a couple (Tom and Beth) in the throes of a life-altering crisis. Behind Karen's question are several other layers of questions, as she tries to imagine the conversation that Beth and Tom had. One of Karen's questions might be, What is the level of your emotions if you have room inside your mind to discuss dessert? Dessert is frivolous. It is not a need. Of course, Marguhes knows that some people in the audience are also wondering about this, questioning Tom's maturity, his commitment to his family; while on the other hand, others may see it as quite natural for Tom to be thinking about food to help curb the stress he is experiencing.

Of all the characters, Karen is the most vocal She is very opinionated and does not hold back any of her feelings. But even Karen has her silences, and her biggest silence is caused by her fear that one day Gabe might leave her, "I'm telling you," Karen says to Beth (in act 2), and then goes on to describe men who hold all their feelings inside until one day they finally explode."It's like men get by for years without really talking to you," Karen says. Then Bethsays, "You and Gabe talk. ."And this is one of the only places in the whole play where Karen is at a loss for words and at a loss of conviction. In an ambivalent voice, she answers, "Yeah ..." Of course, the audience knows that the only times that Karen and Gabe do attempt a deep conversation, Karen has to pull the words from Gabe's mouth. The audience also knows that Karen complains about Gabe not talking. What Karen is exposing in her silence are her doubts, her questions. Will she end up just like Beth one day?

If Gabe's silences are not immediately obvious to the audience, Karen, his wife, does not hesitate to point them out. When Karen does point them out, Gabe becomes somewhat defensive. He tries to deny that there is any significance behind his silence, and then he turns on Karen, stating that she's just trying to pick a fight."What do you want me to say, that this whole thing [the divorce of their friends] scares the sh—t out of me?" he asks. Although he sometimes surrenders his silence upon Karen's insistence, Gabe returns to it as soon as he can. At the end of the play, there is a big silence Karen asks a very significant question."How do we not get lost?" she asks. How does Marguhes have Gabe respond? Gabe resorts to playing a game.

It seems fitting to end with a question hanging in the air, ending with a charged silence If Marguhes' aim is to have the audience leave grappling with what they have just seen, what better way to end the play than with a question. And it's not just any question. It is the question that moves the whole play. By having Karen ask, "How do we not get losf'' Marguhes turns over to the audience the real ending of his play. This is a play about commitment and long-term relationships. And maybe Marguhes doesn't have an answer for Karen's question. Maybe the answer to this question is Margulies' silence.

Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on Dinner with Friends, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2001

The Concept of Food in Dinner With Friends

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The title of playwright Donald Marguhes' work suggests the central, if subtle, role that food and cooking play in Dinner with Friends At the heart of the relationship between the two couples, Karen and Gabe and Beth and Tom, have been the meals they have shared together over the years. Dinner with Friends explores what happens when this bond is broken. Marguhes uses food and related concepts in several ways. Primarily, food is employed as a symbol of stability, comfort, friendship, family, and closeness. The use of this symbol shows the differences between Beth and Tom, individually and as a couple, compared to Karen and Gabe. This essay explores the complex ways in which food is used.

In the play, Gabe and Karen are the stable couple. They remain together at the beginning, middle, and end of the play. Gabe and Karen's relationship, indeed their very life, is defined by food. They are food writers who have recently traveled to Italy for their work Their every experience on their trip hinged on food and cooking. Though it was a work-related trip, they discuss nothing else but driving to and from food The only places they visited were related to food and work. No mention is made of any tourist or historical sites, just markets, produce, and cooks. Even as they have Beth in their home for dinner and to hear about their trip, present food concerns creep into the conversation. In this and every other scene they have together, they constantly insert critiques about the food they have prepared in the midst of other conversations. Early in act 1, scene 1, when Karen senses that something is wrong, she asks Beth, "Was dinner ... ?" as if food is the only potential problem. While food keeps Gabe and Karen together, it also weighs them down. As Patti Hartigan of the Boston Globe points out, "Karen and Gabe are only passionate when they discuss gourmet food. . . "

Because food plays a central role in Gabe and Karen's lives, it also is important in their friendships as well. Food has been the foundation of their relationship with Beth and Tom. They have cooked often for their friends, and this relationship will become significantly altered when they can no longer cook for them as a couple. The flashback in act 2, scene 1, shows how food was the basis of the relationship from the beginning in the 1960s. There, Beth and Tom first met at a dinner set up by Karen and Gabe while on vacation at Martha's Vineyard. The latter couple is already married by this time. While Karen cooks and Gabe brings in the groceries, the conversation is much more varied than later in their marriage. Cooking is not everything at this time The four discuss topics such as the Vineyard and its terrain and how they know each other. While food symbolizes the already established bond between Karen and Gabe, it does not yet define them.

In that flashback scene, Beth tries to assist in making the meal when the situation becomes slightly awkward, but she cuts herself in the process. This moment symbolizes her problematic relationship with food and cooking, which in turn underscores her problematic marriage. Beth is the first to admit she cannot cook. She was once an artist who did design work for books Beth had greater aspirations but felt no encouragement from her husband and currently has no career but raising her children. She finds nothing wrong with this, but it puts her and her marriage m negative contrast to Gabe and Karen and their marriage.

Early in the play, Gabe teasingly says to Beth, when describing the potential consequences of Karen's reckless driving in Italy, "you and Tom would become the boys' guardians, raise them on processed foods...." The stage directions then read, "Beth swipes at him affectionately for his affectionate dig." Though in fun, this statement implies the superiority of Gabe and Karen's handmade, gourmet cooking and related lifestyle. In act 1, scene 2, when Tom appears in Beth's bedroom, he sees the placemats that Gabe and Karen gave them as a present. Beth admits to him, "Karen and Gabe, God love 'em, they know what a disaster I am hi the kitchen so they're always giving me things like trivets and cookbooks.'' The implication is that Beth's lack of culinary abilities somehow makes her inferior, and, by extension, her and Tom's marriage is inferior.

As is revealed over the course of the play, Beth's marriage is indeed a failure. The pressure of the dinner with Gabe and Karen, the facade of stability, becomes too much for her to bear. In act 1, scene 1, she has to tell them what has happened. Yet Gabe and Karen's food also comforts her in her time of need. At the end of act 1, scene 1, the couple uses dessert, lemon-almond polenta, to console Beth. They turn the subject back to food to make her feel better and them more comfortable. Karen and Gabe also sort of believe that time eating with them might have helped Tom and Beth's marriage. Karen tells Beth at one point in act 1, scene 1,"God, I wish you guys had come with us to Italy!" This implies that Karen believes the recent food-oriented trip might have helped save the marriage, though she knows Tom's affair had already been going on for several months.

Tom, Beth's estranged husband and a lawyer, also has a tenuous relationship with food. Though the issue is not directly addressed, it is implied that he does not cook, only eats. He always wants to be served. In act 1, scene 2, when he learns that Beth has told Gabe and Karen, without him, about their marriage being over, he asks detailed questions about their conversation, wanting "the whole picture"—including the food. What they ate is nearly as important as what was said. Tom is also annoyed that Beth did not bring any food home with her. Food is something he expects to be there no matter what.

When Tom goes to Gabe and Karen's house that same night in act 1, scene 3, the difference m his evolving values becomes more obvious. Though Gabe and, especially, Karen are mad at him, Tom wants the same food and the same desert—i.e., the same comfort and understanding—as Beth. This also allows Tom the time to tell his side of the story in the security of Gabe and Karen's kitchen. Though Karen will have no part of it, Tom plays on their food sympathies by telling Gabe that his only meal was "Just a crappy sandwich at the airport." Gabe fixes him leftovers, but Tom does not ask him to warm them up. Further, Tom asks about how Gabe cooked the meal, knowing, at least subconsciously, how important that subject is to Gabe But much of Tom's conversation is about his own life, primarily related to sex He defines marriage and happiness in terms of sex, not food. Gabe tries to understand, but their values are now very different. It is already obvious that Tom is diverging from the power of food as Gabe and Karen know it, though Tom is not prepared to give it up completely.

Yet without much mention of food, Tom and Beth meet other people. When Beth and Karen meet in act 2, scene 2, and Tom and Gabe in scene 3, the importance of food has diminished for the estranged couple In the former scene, Beth and Karen talk over lunch at Karen and Gabe's home. Beth remains part of the domestic scene, though she has a new man in her life. Beth talks about how she has moved forward with her life and abandoned painting. She had known her new boyfriend for some years and met up with him again over a drink (not a meal) because they were both in failing marriages. Beth describes how she is enjoying Me, but there is no discussion of food.

The women end up arguing because Beth believes that Karen does not want her to change. Beth invokes food at least twice to show how Karen relishes her culinary, and therefore life, superiority. Beth refuses to let Karen's food prowess be used in that way anymore At one point in the scene, Beth says, "You got to be Miss Perfect. Everything just right. Just the right wine, just the right spice, just the right husband. How was I supposed to compete with that1?" Later in the same exchange, Beth emphasizes, "We can't all be like you, Karen God knows I've fried. No matter how much / stir, my soup still sticks to the pot.'' Though Karen and Beth manage to remain friends and continue to eat together, their relationship has been forever altered.

The relationship between Gabe and Tom has even less of a future. In act 2, scene 3, the men meet for drmks at a bar in Manhattan. Gabe is described as a bit uncomfortable. No wonder: there is no food, no sustenance. There is nothing homemade or handmade It is not a comfortable kitchen or even an intimate restaurant they meet in a bar. As m their earlier conversation, Tom mostly talks about his love life, with little mention of food. Further, Tom tells Gabe that his previous life was a fake and completely wrong, which Gabe finds hard to believe. Gabe defends the idea of the stability of marriage and thus his own life. Yet one way Tom tries to sell Nancy, his new love, to Gabe, so that they can remain friends and Tom can still be part of the life he once had, is with food Tom claims that Nancy "knows a lot about food" and wants to pursue a career as a nutritionist. This faint relationship to food is not enough. The stage directions read, as the pair parts, "Gabe's smile fades as he watches Tom walk away; he knows it is the last time they will see each other..

The final scene of Dinner with Friends shows Karen and Gabe making sense of what has happened to their friends. They are confused and saddened by the way these intimate friends, whom they have fed numerous times, have changed However, food remains part of their conversation because it is their life. They know where their meals will come from, even if Tom and Beth do not. Marguhes implies that while variety may be the spice of life, the power and intimacy of food and stable living has something going for it as well. Lovingly prepared food is always good, but it is not the only way to live.

Source: A Petruso, Critical Essay on Dinner with Friends, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.

Review of Dinner With Friends

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Dinner with Friends (Variety Arts) is a new play by Donald Margulies that is also about a broken contract, this time between a husband and a wife The play follows two couples—Gabe and Karen, Beth and Tom—during a twelve year period. Over a dinner of red wine, grilled lamb, pumpkin risotto, and polenta (food is the central metaphor of the play), Beth tells her hosts that Tom is leaving her for another woman. Their sex life has been deteriorating and, as Torn later reveals to the same friends, Beth has killed his self-confidence as a man.

What Margulies proceeds to anatomize is the impact of this marital crisis on the other couple. The four friends had spent many happy summers and eaten many gourmet meals together on Martha's Vineyard, and now their relationship has splintered beyond repair. Although there is considerable analysis of character in the play—Tom is a narcissistic lawyer, Beth is a self-involved artist—the playwright is more interested in the fragile nature of marriage. What happens to couples"when practical matters begin to outweigh abandon"9 Should people follow their impulses regardless of the children? How do we respond to the need for change without hurting others'? Can Gabe's friendship for Tom survive the breakup? Tune in tomorrow.

I don't mean to make the play sound like a soap. Domestic though it is, the plot is more sophisticated than Jack loves Jill and Jill loves Bill and Bill has the hots for Phil. By cutting back and forth in time, Margulies creates a mood of bittersweet nostalgia, touching on an extremely topical subject: the breakdown in sexual relationships. He also writes nice scenes for actors, and, under Daniel Sullivan's smooth direction, Matthew Arkin, Lisa Emery, Carolyn McCormick and Kevin Kilner (reminding us a lot of his anagrammatic namesake, Kevin Kline) give sprightly performances.

Dinner with Friends appeals to audiences by turning a mirror on those audiences, prosperous baby-boomers in the throes of broken marriages and fractured friendships. Yet Margulies provides no context or explanation for the condition he observes. Since the breakdown seems to occur in a social vacuum, we end up feeling less like engaged participants than like detached voyeurs Eugene O'Neill gives us characters harrowed by family circumstances, breaking under the weight of a discarded religious inheritance. Arthur Miller gives us characters trapped and floundering in a heartless social mechanism. David Mamet gives us characters molded by a world of avarice and greed. But Donald Margulies just gives us characters, with nothing more at stake than personal satisfaction.

Source: Robert Brustein, Review of Dinner with Friends, in New Republic, Vol. 222, No. 16&17, April 17 & 24, 2000, p 66.

Succulent and Sobering

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Slowly but surely, Donald Margulies is establishing himself as one of our leading playwrights Four of his plays are of prime importance: The Loman Family Picnic, Sight Unseen, Collected Stories, and now the wonderful Dinner With Friends.

Two married couples have been best friends for years. In their Connecticut home, Karen and Gabe, international food writers, are giving a dinner for Beth and Tom, which he doesn't attend. It emerges from the heartbroken Beth that he has left her for another woman, Nancy. Gabe and Karen are almost as crushed, having expected "to grow old and fat together, the four of us.'' When Tom shows up at his home in the next scene, late at night, he is enraged that Beth broke the news of their breakup in his absence. Late as it is, he rushes over to his friends in the next scene to present his side of the story.

Act Two begins with another dinner, twelve and a half years earlier, in a summer house on Martha's Vineyard, where Karen and Gabe are introducing Beth to Tom. Then we skip to five months after the events of Act One, as Beth reveals to Karen, on the summer-house patio, that she has fallen in love with an old friend whom she intends to marry. Rather than share in Beth's happiness, a shocked—and envious—Karen does everything to dissuade Beth, who justifiably resents her meddling. Later that day, in a Manhattan bar, Tom, a lawyer, tells Gabe about his happiness with Nancy, to which Gabe reacts sourly.

Still later that night, Gabe and Karen are going to bed in the Vineyard house, and discuss the Tom-and-Beth situation, as well as their own by-now-uneventful marriage, in which they soldier on without much passion and with some misgivings, clinging to it like the shipwrecked to their raft.

From this already you can gather that there is skillful construction here, as well as keen psychological insight. Thus Tom and Beth end their aforementioned angry confrontation by hungrily enacting the beast with two backs. Thus Tom's racing over to his friends to justify himself has an additional motive: Karen's fabulous lemon-almond polenta cake that Beth tells him was a comfort to her and whose leftovers he's dying to taste. Thus the strength and weakness of a stagnant marriage are emblematized in the ritual of folding a bedspread in perfect harmony but with robotic emotional detachment.

Margulies is a master of observing what might seem old hat with fresh eyes, hearing it with fresh ears. When the jealousy-racked Karen wonders about Beth's long-standing infidelity, "We saw them practically every weekend in those days, when would she have had time for an affair" Gabe answers, "I don't know, during the week?" This is funny, especially as Matthew ArMn delivers it, but with an underscoring of wistfumess Throughout, this ostensibly contented pair give off an aroma of envy as their opposite numbers cut loose from the time "when practical matters begin to outweigh abandon."

Take Beth's confession that during some stupid action movie she refused to fondle Tom's crotch:

Karen: "Was this before or after the girlfriend'?" Beth' "Must've been after" Karen-"That's nght, one more nail in the old coffin '' Beth "You got it"

Gabe- "See that One lousy hand job, you could've saved your marriage."

Karen "Gabe"

You can feel that Karen's exclamation is only partly concern for Beth's feelings. Daniel Sullivan's inventive direction helps immeasurably, as does Neil Patel's perfect-pitch set design. Matthew Arkm superbly lets Gabe's doubts peek through his certainties; Lisa Emery does Karen's edginess on the threshold of hysteria splendidly. As Beth, Julie White again proves herself a complete comedienne down to those little inchoate noises that convey seismic tremors, as Tom, Kevin Kilner goes from likable to ludicrous without skipping a beat. Dinner With Friends is entertainment as succulent as it is sobering.

Source: John Simon, "Friends'," in New York Magazine, November 22,1999, pp. 89-90


Critical Overview