‘Dinner with Friends” by Donald Margulies feels like eavesdropping on two couples as they wrestle with the responsibilities and pitfalls of marriage. The playwright’s reflection on relationships earned a Pulitzer Prize in 2000, probably because it pushes some universal buttons.
Margulies obviously thinks he is profoundly insightful, but for most of us of a certain age, the play has a “been there, done that” sense of recognition. Many people will recognize the life decisions and repercussions in the story. And it may make younger people think twice about marriage and commitment.
As the play opens, scenes are projected on a screen showing two couples having fun, drinking, eating and laughing. They are obviously close, loving friends. These were scenes from the past. As the action begins in the kitchen of Karen and Gabe, those were the good old days.
Their friend Beth has just enjoyed one of their gourmet meals when she breaks down and tells them that her husband, Gabe’s best friend Tom, has left her. It’s a shock for Karen and Gabe. After Beth returns home, Tom comes by and the drama builds. In an intense, physical confrontation, the details of their unraveling relationship are revealed.
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The beginning of the second act is a flashback to 12 years earlier, when Karen and Gabe introduce Beth and Tom at their summer digs on Martha’s Vineyard. This scene seems to be meant to bring out the differences between Beth and Tom and suggest that they were poorly suited in the first place. The action then shifts to the present, and the final scene finds Karen and Gabe examining their own relationship.
The excellent cast, directed by Lisa Woske, brings the four characters to life with distinct personalities. Karen and Gabe seem happily married. He is a food writer and they are almost obsessed with food and wine. They are both rather smug. At one point someone says, “Gabe and Karen’s job is to make the rest of the world seem incompetent.”
Maggie Coons plays Karen as selfsatisfied and judgmental. Daniel Freeman gives Gabe an easygoing likability, with a tendency to dodge any arguments — until later, when he grills and lectures Tom about his decision to leave his family. This confrontation is also a self-examination for Gabe. What would he do if he had Tom’s options?
Maya Addison is good as Beth, distraught and bewildered at first, but strong as she questions her friendship with Karen and erodes Karen’s self-image. Bob Peterson plays Tom with an aggressive defense of his choice to leave his family for another woman. (Beth calls her a stewardess, Tom says she’s a travel agent.)
Both couples have children, but they are offstage and rarely mentioned.
As Tom relates his reasons for leaving his marriage, he gains some sympathy, but it’s frustrating to hear him recite his complaints while realizing that he never told Beth about them. Much of his tale of woe involves sex, or lack of it, and when he tells Tom about his new relationship there is so much sex that Tom asks, “Do you two ever talk?”
The dialogue flows naturally, and is often clever and insightful. There are some witty remarks, but they have a cynical bite, and this is not a comedy. In fact, there are some obvious moments where a bit of comedy would have lightened up the soap opera.
These characters are upper-middle class with no other apparent worries except for their relationships, so the bottom line seems to be whether to stay together or move on, but that is aone-dimensional question. It’s just not that simple, especially when children are involved. The almost “happily ever after” ending is a copout. Relationships are unique and complex. One size doesn’t fit all.