Drama Review – Dinner with Friends by Donald Margulies

What better topic to use for a lachrymose tale of tragedy than marital problems? Donald Margulies served up a chilling meditation on just that in his 2000 Pulitzer Prize winning drama Dinner with Friends. This play showed how two pairs of friends coped (or struggled to) with the disintegration of one of the couple’s marriages. The atrophy of the one gave the remaining couple doubts about the state of their own union.

This play moved me. Gabe and Karen were the “perfect” couple struggling with doubts about their marriage. Following that, they discovered their friends Tom and Beth decided to divorce. It led to a deep introspection of their situation. Afterwards, then they had to listen to them explain how their lives improved without each other.

The realism in Dinner with Friends impressed me. Beth lived a bohemian life style. I thought her behavior and dialog believable for that type of person. All the dramatis personae conducted themselves like I’d imagine people in their situation. I felt Gabe’s and Karen’s shock when Beth explained that she and Tom separated. Karen’s reaction to the reason for the breakup also came across as reasonable. As did her callous behavior towards Tom. The playwright also presented the latter’s anger towards his estranged wife in a believable fashion. “Don’t underestimate rage; rage can be an amazing aphrodisiac,” Tom said. (Page 38)

In keeping with the realism, the dialog didn’t contain any great lyrical flourishes. The playwright still worked in some memorable lines.

Karen: I spent the first twenty years doing whatever the hell I could do to get away from my family and my second twenty years doing everything I could to cobble together a family of my own. I thought if I could choose my family this time, if I could make my friends my family…

Beth: Congratulations. The family you’ve chosen is as f—-d-up and fallible as the one you were born into. (Page 68)

            Here are Gabe’s thoughts on marriage in light of Beth’s and Tom’s break-up.

Gabe: (Looks at him; a beat): I guess, I mean, I thought we were in this together. You know, for life.

Tom: Isn’t that just another way of saying misery loves company? (Page 77)

Here’s an exchange between Karen and Beth. This took place after Beth mentioned she had a new boyfriend.

Karen: You didn’t want to be alone for a while? You haven’t been alone in a dozen years.

Beth: I’ve always been alone, don’t you see? I spent my marriage alone. (Page 65)

That’s a harsh observation.

I don’t normally comment on this, but I liked the book’s cover. It summed up the play’s content non-verbally. It showed a dinner plate flanked by a knife and a fork. A large crack extended from the top of the dish all the way to the bottom. I found that very clever.

Dinner with Friends reminded me of another Pulitzer Prize Winning Drama, Rabbit Hole. In David Lindsay-Abaire’s work, a husband and wife struggle to keep their marriage together following the death of their four year old son. Donald Margulies’ portrayal of marital disintegration was comparable to a death. As in Rabbit Hole, the ending left more questions than answers.

The Stuff of Legends

Yesterday Jeb Bush followed the family tradition of crass and fatuous oratory that made his surname legendary. If that was the former governor’s goal: “Mission Accomplished.” I wouldn’t have thought it possible to out-do Shakespearean eloquence such as “Trees cause more pollution than cars do” and “Smoke evildoers out of their holes”; Bush fils part deux set a new standard. When asked for his thoughts on the rampage at Roseburg our prospective forty-fifth president replied, “Stuff happens.” As insensitive and tactless as the latest heir to the Bush legacy spoke, the ultimate tragedy lay in his veracity: at least in reference to mass murder in America.

Josef Stalin, himself no stranger to the concept, once observed, “One death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a statistic.” It saddens me such unmotivated acts of violence occur with such frequency in our society. While the Umpqua Community College shooter’s father may express “shock” at this latest massacre, in the last day I’ve read tweets from PBS and the Associated Press stating that our country averages one mass shooting per day. I fear our society is becoming desensitized to it.

But why would we? After all, the media will saturate us with “coverage” of this latest “tragedy”. They’ll present myriad “special reports” on the killer. They’ll probe his friends and family with, “How could this happen?” They’ll ask “Why? Why? Why?” We’ll get incisive analysis of how he “was a quiet boy; a good boy; a troubled boy.” This will go on until he becomes as much a household name as John Wilkes Booth or Lee Harvey Oswald.

This “coverage” will, no doubt, feed the salacious appetites of “tragedy porn” addicts. We’ll receive up-to-the-minute body counts presented as enthusiastically as the score of a Baseball Playoff game. As appalling as that may be, I fear something much more horrible. I worry this unwarranted attention will only encourage the next “quiet, good, troubled boy” seeking his fifteen minutes of infamy.

This latest massacre brought to mind Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin. It’s an epistolary novel about a woman’s quest to understand why her son executed several of his classmates. The author thoroughly researched the subject. She cited numerous names in reference to school massacres. Some I recognized; others I didn’t. As a work of fiction, I presumed them the product of the author’s imagination. Due to the volume of appellations at the halfway point in the book, I wondered and investigated on-line. It astonished me to discover that this sort of tragedy had been occurring regularly in the US since the 1970s.

Every culture has its share of violence. We Americans have a legendary brand of it. The late former FBI Agent Robert Ressler pioneered the study of serial killers. He observed that most reside in the United States. When asked why, he answered, “We live in a society that encourages and glorifies violence.”

The media sensationalizing of this crime will further ignite the passions in the gun control debate. Based on Mr. Ressler’s view, I’m wondering if limiting access to firearms would have any effect on violent crime. While fictitious, the killer in Shriver’s novel didn’t use a gun.

While I disagree with the way the former Florida governor expressed himself, I’m disturbed more by how I agree with his underlying premise. This is a national disgrace and an embarrassment to our great country.

My thoughts and condolences go out to the friends and family of those affected by this latest act of senseless carnage. I’ve lost friends and family over the years. I can’t imagine the pain of losing someone I love to such a meaningless violent act. All of those affected have my deepest sympathy.

The rest of us can take solace. We’ll forget all about this tragedy with the advent of the next one. Based on the numbers, we won’t have long to wait. The media will scamper from the Pacific Northwest and descend upon the next campus asking the ubiquitous “Why? Why? Why?” After the standard, “He was a quiet boy; a good boy; a troubled boy”, we’ll be treated to a new stock response: “Stuff happens.”