Dinner with Friends

by Donald Margulies

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Themes and Meanings

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Two themes common in all of Margulies’s plays are relationships and loss. In Dinner with Friends the impact that divorce has on close friends produces painful self-examination. While the play appears to cover well-traveled territory, Margulies’s deft, wry dialogue probes honestly the tender places that lie beneath any long-term relationship.

The theme of loss is introduced at the outset as Tom is absent from the dinner Gabe and Karen have prepared for their friends. At the end of act 1, Karen’s angry departure suggests the rifts that quickly form between the couples. Only in a single scene in act 2 do all four characters appear together.

At its core, the play focuses less on the couple who divorce than on the impact the divorce has on Gabe and Karen. Underneath the cultured exterior of Gabe and Karen lies a creeping insecurity slowly unearthed by the aftershocks caused by Tom and Beth’s break up. Self-examination follows as seemingly permanent constants are shattered. Reflecting on Beth’s affair ten years earlier, Karen comes to question the years they shared with Beth and Tom. Gabe seems to be the most disturbed by Tom and Beth’s decisions. He passionately, if not clumsily, challenges Tom to validate the years their families spent together. “This misery you describe, this agony. Gee, I thought we were all just living out lives, you know? . . . I thought you were there, wholeheartedly there. And now you’re saying you had an eye on the clock and a foot out the door?” Tom is forced to admit that he could never commit to family life. This admission shakes Gabe deeply.

In the first act of the play, the differences between the couples become clear. While Tom and Beth are genuinely fond of their close friends, their rocky marital life prevents them from seeing themselves as equals. Unnerved by Tom’s unexpected return from the airport, Beth slips into casual conversation about her dinner with Gabe and Karen. Tom notices a new set of placemats. Beth’s reply foreshadows the anger she expresses later: “Karen and Gabe, God love’em, they know what a disaster I am in the kitchen so they’re always giving me things like trivets and cookbooks.” When Tom visits Gabe to tell “his side of the story,” Gabe seems unable to accept the finality of Tom’s decisions. Unless they are discussing the quality of Gabe’s food, Tom and Gabe are unable to connect meaningfully.

Wisely, Margulies makes neither heroes nor villains out of his characters. The viewer’s sentiments shift between these four, all-too-human people. In the end, Dinner with Friends probes the strength of commitment, the value of fidelity, and the depths of love in relationships both marital and fraternal.


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Marriage and Courtship
One of the major themes of the play is the different levels of relationship both mside and outside of marriage. There is the initial phase of marriage as portrayed in the flashback scene; Gabe and Karen are depicted as a newlywed couple, still infatuated with one another to the point of distraction. They are more inwardly-focused as a couple than they are in other scenes that depict them as a long-married couple.

There is also the portrayal of courtship as seen in the same flashback; Tom and Beth first meet one another and learn to maneuver themselves into a couple. Later, when Tom leaves Beth because he has found another woman, the stage of courtship is revisited. Beth also begins a courtship with the new man in her life.

In contrast are the scenes that involve the long-term...

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marriage relationship. In the case of Gabe and Karen, marriage seems to have aged well, as their identities melt into one another. They complete one another's thoughts, one finishing a sentence for the other. They write together, cook together, and travel together. Their duties as parents appear well divided For Beth and Tom, marriage has not fared as well. They are closed off from one another; they no longer communicate In place of communication are long silences, misunderstandings, or fights. They look to sources outside of their relationship to help them out of the abyss of silence that they have created not only between themselves, but inside of themselves.

Permanence and Impermanence
Despite the fact that a long-term relationship looks permanent, successful marriage partners know that life is about change. The challenge in relationships is to figure out how to foster that change without destroying the relationship.

Gabe and Karen have successfully managed the changes in their lives, or at least they think they have. It's not until the breakup of Tom and Beth's marriage that Gabe and Karen face the ways in which they have allowed the changes to occur. It's almost as if Gabe and Karen have managed their marriage intuitively. They have changed when the changes were required, possibly without fully conscious thought. They did what they had to do, because they were both committed to making their marriage work.

Tom and Beth, however, were not so successful. Their marriage started off on faulty ground. They wanted to emulate their friends' happiness, and they thought that marriage would hand over to them the success that Gabe and Karen worked hard to obtain. Gabe and Karen were committed to one another. Tom and Beth, however, were committed to trying to be like Gabe and Karen. Therefore when the situation and the times called for change, Tom and Beth maintained rigid stances. Since they were trying so hard to be other people, they lost their natural and intuitive abilities to figure out what changes were necessary and how to make the necessary transitions. Beth, unable to deal with the changes that Tom needed, hid inside her studio. Tom dealt with change by flying away, finding changes in the scenery and in the people that surrounded him in the new locations Not until Tom breaks up the marriage does he (and later Beth) find avenues to refresh himself, to allow all the pent-up changes inside to emerge

There are several layers of alienation. The most obvious is the alienation between Beth and Tom. After many years of concealing their alienation, it causes an eruption one night during an argument about the family dog. But there is another level of alienation going on here. It is the alienation from oneself. Beth has dismissed her own self-worth when she tries to compete with Karen, a challenge that Beth finds insurmountable but nonetheless continues until she is forced to come face-to-face with a better definition of herself.

Tom is also alienated from himself. He wants to show all of his feelings, but he uses the excuse that Beth will not listen to him Whether he really was in tune with his feelings is unclear, as the play does not present any examples of his attempts. But Tom does tell Gabe that he felt that he was dying. In other words, he became so alienated from himself that there was little of his life force going into his self-image.

There is also the feeling of alienation that Gabe and Karen feel when they realize that it will be very difficult to continue a relationship with Tom and Beth. Gabe and Karen have known Tom and Beth and grown used to them as a couple Gabe and Karen are not sure if they can reinvent their relationship with Tom and Beth and their new spouses. Gabe and Karen also feel alienated from Tom and Beth because they do not relate to their new life choices. Gabe and Karen are struggling to keep the life in their relationship. They look at Tom and Beth's choices as unavailable to them.

And there is the alienation that Gabe and Karen feel between who they have become and who they once were. As displayed in Karen's dream, there is a bridge missing between the two images. Beth and Tom's new choices make Karen and Gabe face this alienation in themselves.