Dinner with Friends

by Donald Margulies

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The Play

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 659

A two-act play, Dinner with Friends intertwines the lives of Gabe and Karen, food writers, and their close friends Tom and his wife Beth. Act 1 opens over dinner in Gabe and Karen’s kitchen on a snowy evening in Connecticut. Tom is away on business, and Beth sits quietly as Gabe and Karen animatedly describe their recent excursion to Italy. In between descriptions of the old Italian cook and her pasta pomodoro, and shouts from the children upstairs, the scene is one of warm, if somewhat fussy, banter about food and travel. Beth soon dissolves into tears and informs the distressed couple that her husband has had an affair and wants a divorce. The scene concludes as Beth prepares to leave, but not without sampling dessert.

The scene shifts to Tom and Beth’s cluttered bedroom, where Beth prepares for bed. Tom enters, apologizing for the intrusion. Beth confesses that she divulged their marital troubles. Furious, Tom accuses Beth of biasing their friends against him. Each angrily reminds the other of past injuries. The argument turns violent when Beth slaps Tom, and Tom throws Beth onto the bed, pinning her there. However, the violence arouses both, and the scene ends with lovemaking.

Later that evening snuggling on the sofa, Gabe and Karen discuss how Karen would have responded if Gabe had been unfaithful. Headlights appear through the window. Tom enters and asks for a fair hearing, but Karen refuses to listen and leaves the room. Over leftovers and wine, Gabe tries to offer advice, but Tom does not want it. “My head is spinning with shoulds and shouldn’ts,” says Tom. “It may be news to you but I’ve been living with this for a long time.” Frustrated, Tom leaves Gabe, who sits pensively as the act ends.

Act 2 begins twelve and one-half years earlier on Martha’s Vineyard. Newlyweds Gabe and Karen are preparing dinner for Tom and Beth, having arranged a “date” for their friends, who have not yet met. Once the guests have arrived, Tom attempts to make conversation, bringing up his long friendship with Gabe. Karen touts Beth’s skill as an artist, and Tom, who finds Beth attractive, tries to snatch her sketchbook. This sudden intimacy makes Beth uncomfortable, so she tries her hand at cutting scallions. Unfortunately, Beth cuts her finger. As the scene concludes, Tom gallantly bandages it and they notice a mutual attraction.

The play returns to the present. Several months have passed since the breakup. Over lunch, Beth tells Karen that she is planning to marry a lawyer from Tom’s firm. Karen urges Beth to slow down. Beth explodes, not in anger but in release. “You need me to be a mess; you’re invested in it. Every Karen needs a Beth.” Meanwhile, Gabe meets Tom in a Manhattan bar. Free from the ties of family, Tom’s extramarital relationship has invigorated his sex life. Gabe confesses that Tom sounds like a stranger to him. Tom maintains that while his marriage was a lie his friendship with Gabe and Karen was real. To Gabe, Tom’s decision has hurt them all. As the scene concludes, Gabe learns that Beth had an affair ten years earlier with the lawyer that she is currently seeing. Tom leaves and Gabe knows he’ll never see his friend again.

Later that night, in the summer home on Martha’s Vineyard, Gabe and Karen engage in a practiced bedtime ritual as they discuss their conversations with Tom and Beth. Shaken by the change in her friends, Karen wonders why Gabe seems unable to articulate his feelings about their own marriage. Her frustration builds...

(This entire section contains 659 words.)

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until Gabe stumbles incoherently onto the truth. He misses the passion of their youth. What has happened to them is “what happens when practical matters . . . begin to outweigh . . . abandon.” Deeply saddened by this discovery, Karen wonders, “How do we not get lost?” They hold each other as the play concludes.

Dramatic Devices

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Much of the play’s “cut to the bone” realism is achieved by the use of overlapping dialogue. Characters engage in a very natural, humorous interplay of ideas, often speaking simultaneously. At times, the lines illustrate the comfort that the speakers feel with one another. During the opening scene, Karen and Gabe seem to speak as one when they describe Italian cuisine: Gabe: Anyway, the pomodoro. Karen: The pomodoro was amazing. Gabe: And simple. Karen: Amazingly simple.

Gabe and Karen seem like Olympic skaters, executing an improvised routine with practiced ease. Here Margulies uses the humor of simultaneous speech to create the impression of closeness. However, Margulies also uses overlapping dialogue as a symbol of the characters’ inability to communicate deeply. As Karen and Beth share lunch several months after Beth’s breakup with Tom, Karen tries to catch up with her friend:Karen: I’d leave messages and you’d wouldn’t call back right away. . . . Beth: (Over “. . . right away. . . .”) I know, I’m sorry. I needed some time to myself. You know. Karen: You’re not mad at me or anything, are you? Beth: (Over “. . . are you?”) Mad at you? Why should I be mad at you?

Beth’s too-quick responses signal Karen that something is indeed wrong. She is unable to discover the problem until Beth angrily accuses her of wanting Beth to be “a mess.” Margulies’s use of run-on sentences and overlapping dialogue illustrates the subtext underneath each scene.

Just as Pinter does in Betrayal (pr., pb. 1978) and Stephen Sondheim does in Merrily We Roll Along (pr. 1981, pb. 1982), Margulies uses flashback to layer bittersweet irony upon the play’s action. The flashback scene in act 2 introduces the characters as idealistic, vigorous men and women in their thirties. Impressions developed in act 1 color the way the audience perceives each character. Tom appears more sensual and more childish. Beth’s flightiness seems to stem from the artist-role she chooses to play. Gabe and Karen, madly in love, are physically affectionate in a way that appears nowhere else in the play.

Finally, Margulies frequently draws on food preparation and dining as a metaphor. During the flashback scene at Martha’s Vineyard, Gabe and Karen work as one in the kitchen, but Beth is unable to master even the simplest of tasks without injuring herself. Ironically, while folding down the bed with practiced sterility, Karen and Gabe comment on how happy Tom and Beth seem now that they have found new partners. The couple experience more passion in the kitchen discussing and preparing food than in the bedroom.

At first, food provides comfort for Tom and Beth. They eagerly consume large portions of Karen and Gabe’s perfectly prepared food, even as each describes marital loneliness. It is not advice they seek from their friends, but a listening ear and a second helping. Toward the end of the play, as each describes his or her new relationships, food is not discussed. As Tom and Beth move away from their friends, they rely less upon food for comfort.

Historical Context

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Browse the shelves of any bookstore, and it's easy to see one hot topic on the mind of Americans: it's divorce. There are over three thousand published titles out there dealing with subjects such as how to survive divorce, how to be creative with divorce, how to enjoy divorce, how to help children through divorce, and what to do when the person who asked for the divorce wants to come back. There are also videos, websites, and songs about divorce. According to the Monthly Vital Statistics report, in 1994 alone, there were over one million divorces in America. And although there have been slight, overall declines in these rates in the past few years on a national level, in New York City the number is rising. So the subject of Margulies' play is very current, especially in terms of sheer numbers—both in the numbers of divorces and in the numbers of people (especially the baby boomers) who relate to the characters in the play.

In the United States, between the end of World War II in 1945 and 1964, seventy-eight million baby boomers were born. So in the light of the present day, this means that four out of ten heads of households are between the ages of thirty-five and fifty-four, which puts Margulies' characters right smack in the middle of the baby boom.

Baby boomers cut their teeth, went through puberty, fell in love, and married in a time of change so far unparalleled m the United States. These were years of social upheaval, political unrest, economic depression, and general chaos. This era saw the worst unemployment and economic recession since the Great Depression in the thirties and forties. This was the time of the Cold War, which led to an awareness of the possibility of worldwide ecological disasters and of nuclear obliteration While their parents' generation had idyllic dreams for the future (with the GI Bill paying for their education, cheap suburban housing giving many of them the power to own their first home, and modern conveniences such as automatic washing machines alleviating some of the drudgery of life), baby boomers lived in fear that tomorrow might never come. This caused a widening in the typical and predictable gap between the generations to the point that many baby boomers tended to define themselves in the negative- We are NOT our parents.

Throw into these factors a midlife crisis (a period of psychological stress occurring in middle age, which is thought to be triggered by a physical or domestic event and characterized by a strong desire for change), and you've got a pretty definitive description of the life and circumstances that embody Margulies' play.

Literary Style

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Flashback Margulies begins his play in what he terms the present. Time progresses throughout the first act. In order to fill in background information, showing the play's characters in the light of first love, he then changes the time, moving backwards to twelve and one half years prior to the opening scene. The flashback scene also shows both couples together and gives more emotional weight to the consequences of Tom and Beth's divorce.

The flashback allows characters to act out their history rather than have the playwright squeeze details from the past into their current dialogues. A sense of depth is added to the characters as the audience witnesses the changes in the characters' lives rather than just hearing about them. This also brings the audience into the play as active, rather than passive, members. The playwright has the option of leaving spaces, unanswered questions, and silences in the dialogues and in the actions, which then require the audience to fill them in, coming up with answers of their own.

Comedy Drama Margulies' play, although the topic is serious, is not without its humor, which begins in the first lines and continues through the end. The humor is subtle. Considering that the play revolves around divorce and the challenges of staying in love, anything more than subtle humor would distract from the more serious elements of the play.

The soft touches of humor allow a release of the tensions that build up An example of this use of humor is seen in the final scene of the play, when Gabe and Karen play their little game, in which Gabe pretends to scare Karen Tension has built up around them because, in some ways, they envy their friends. The envy frightens them. To release that tension, Gabe makes Karen laugh.

Mood The mood, or prevailing emotion, of the play changes from scene to scene. But one thing is consistent: each scene has more than one strong emotion.

The play begins in a mood of excitement. Karen and Gabe are bubbling over with the details of their recent trip to Europe. Even the food they are eating is exciting—a gourmet menu But Beth, their friend, is entirely in an opposite realm. She is drained, headachy, and suffering from loss.

Margulies presents these types of opposing moods throughout his play, pitting anger against frustration and sincerity against sarcasm And then he flips the characters moods around and the play turns on itself. Where once there was sorrow, now there is excitement. Where once there was security, now there is doubt. It is through his use of mood that Margulies shows the complexities of life. Emotions change.

Point of View If there is a point of view in this play, it is an omniscient one (one that sees everything) Margulies has made a point of not favoring one character over another, one couple over another He presents all equally, allowing the audience to come to their own conclusions about whom they identify with, who they think is making the right conclusions and decisions, and who is making the most sense He shows each character in different situations. He also combines the characters in different ways: Tom with Gabe, Beth with Karen, and so on. In so doing, he shows different aspects of each character's personality. He shows their weaknesses and their strengths. This gives the play its sense of balance.

Media Adaptations

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Marguhes wrote a film adaptation of Dinner with Friends, which Norman Jewison directed for HBO, released in 2001.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Albis, Theron,"In the Spotlight, Donald Margulies,'' http.// www stagenscreen com/ (2000).

Denton, Martin, "Dinner with Friends," http //www nytheatre com/nytheatre/dinner htm (November 11, 2000).

Feingold, Michael, "Fable Settings," in Village Voice, November 17-23,1999.

Hartigan, Patti, "Dinner with Friends Satisfies," in Boston Globe, November 9,2000, p El.

Lyons, Donald, "Delicious 'Dinner' a Winner," in New York Post Online Edition, http //www nypost com/theatre/ 17595 htm (1999).

"Online NewsHour, Pulitzer Prize Winner-Drama," http / /www pbs org/newshour/gergen/jan-juneOO/margulies_ 4-13.fitml (Apnl 13,2000).

Phillips, Michael, "A Delicious 'Dinner with Friends,'" in Los Angeles Times, October 6, 2000.

"Playbill On-line's Brief Encounter with Donald Margulies," http-//www.playbill.com/ (April 18,2000).

Scheck, Frank, "Hollywood Reporter Reviews," www hollywoodreporter com/reviews/ IndividualReview asp?StaffReviewID=2326 (November 5,2000).

Sheward, David, "Show Guide, 'Dinner with Friends,"' httpV/www backstage com/ShowGuide/offbroadway/ sobl999111740202 asp (November 14,2000) Simon, John, "Friends''" in New York Magazine, November 22,1999, pp 89-90.

Futher Reading Janich, Kathy, "Margulies Sees Pulitzer as Career-Affirming Prize," in Atlantic Journal and Constitution, October 1, 2000, p L3. Janich presents an interview with Donald Margulies in which he discusses his play Dinner with Friends as well as his opinions about American theater.

Margulies, Donald,"Theater; A Playwright Has His Dinner and Diner, Too," in New York Times, January 16,2000. Margulies discusses his reactions to the French version of his play Dinner with Friends that opened a few months before it opened in New York, off Broadway


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Sources for Further Study

Brustein, Robert. “Plays Fat and Thin.” Review of Dinner with Friends. The New Republic 222 (April 17, 2000): 64-66.

Margulies, Donald. “A Playwright’s Search for the Spiritual Father.” New York Times Current Events Edition, June 21, 1992, p. 25.

Marks, Peter. “A Menu Featuring Divorce and Fear.” New York Times, November 5, 1999, p. E4.

Pogrebin, Robin. “At the Junction of Life and Art.” New York Times, March 3, 2000, p. E1.


Critical Essays


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