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Comedy by Hilarywho

Donald Margulies' play, Dinner With Friends, is a marvelously witty comedy with a potent drama beneath its shiny surface. Characters who would otherwise appear to have settled into almost rote and familiar routines in life are forced to question their assumptions about themselves and each other by the sudden dissolution of a friends' marriage. The result of that questioning is the knowledge that many relationships dissolve, or end in divorce, because: “I think [this is] what happens when…when practical matters begin to outweigh…abandon.” (Margulies 85) But the power of Margulies' play lies not in carefully plotted, yet typical character transformation, rather it is in the clever and decisive use of ritual by two of the characters to survive and enhance transformation.

At first glance this cleverly written play seems like a comedy about suburban manners and mores. Gabe and Karen are entertaining their friend Beth over dinner with stories about their recent trip to Italy. Margulies lets his characters develop their typical social dance across 10 pages of the opening of the first Act. It is an almost blindly enacted ritual because Beth is holding onto a secret pain that Gabe and Karen fail to notice while they're conducting what appears to be their customary repartee about food and travel and themselves. Finally, Beth blurts out her secret: “Oh, Karen…Tom's leaving me” (10) and we witness Margulies' deft examination of both the value of the typical and almost blindly enacted social rituals and the hazards of such customs.

At first, Margulies let us experience through Gabe and Karen's eyes the security and safety that results from accepted, customary, even assumed behavior. Then, with Beth and Tom's impending break-up and subsequent jockeying for position as the victim and victimizer-and the ensuing struggle to determine who will remain a “friend” of Gabe and Karen-we see these two characters awaken from their secure, safe, suburban existence to discover the pitfalls of behaving without thinking about the implications and meaning of one's actions.

In a delightful “flashback” to Gabe and Karen's courtship in Scene One of Act Two, Margulies reveals a playful childlike ritual the couple use: it's an intimate game that a parent might play with it's infant or toddler, but Margulies cautions, “no baby talk” (47).
You know what time it is?
It's time for me to scare you.
(Playing along): Oh, no, please don't. (47-48)

Later, he reintroduces the same game in the last lines of the play and thereby reinforces the notion that ritual, properly used, can have both a deepening and nurturing affect upon a relationship while also creating security and safety, even breaking the tension that might result in a quarrel. This is the kind of behavior where “abandon” outweighs “practical matters”. But, it's also a deliberate and thoughtfully employed behavior. And herein is the real importance of Margulies' play: a play that would otherwise constitute merely a re-visioning of familiar character development (or, in this case, characters) where revelatory transformation from blind behavior to awakened action occurs. The way couples survive, Margulies illustrates, is through play, friendship, and the rituals and behavior that encourage those aspects of a healthy relationship. Coincidentally, Beth and Tom's relationship crumbles in part because Tom seeks play, friendship and ultimately a healthy relationship outside the one he had with Beth.

Work Cited
Margulies, Donald. Dinner With Friends. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2000.

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