AGPA 2016 “Dinner with Friends”

Two Couples 2001 Diana Ong (b.1940/Chinese-American) Computer graphics Two Couples by Diana Ong

The Red Well Theater Group presented Dinner with Friends, by Donald Margulies, as an Open Session at the 2016 AGPA Annual Meeting on February 25 in New York City. The new cast features RWTG members John Dluhy, Mary Dluhy, Liz Marsh and Yavar Moghimi. The Open Session Chair is Bob Schulte. The play is being directed by Rob Williams. The play (winner of the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for  Drama) and was was presented by special arrangement with Dramatists Play Service of New York. The Discussants were Molly W. Donovan and Barry J. Wepman. The text of their discussion (as delivered) is presented below.

BARRY

This discussion is a group effort. Reading the play together in various combinations, with each of us taking different roles, we have come to see it from a variety of angles. Many of the insights we have gained about the play have come from this process of sitting together, and talking about all of our experiences with the material.. The talk you are about to hear is the direct result of a couples collaboration bet

ween the Molly and me. Developing this talk together felt like playing improvisational jazz. The ideas came as we talked, read scenes to each other, and brainstormed. It is often unclear who wrote what or where the ideas originated. Cool Jazz.

 

MOLLY

Poem – Special Problems in Vocabulary
BY TONY HOAGLAND

There is no single particular noun
for the way a friendship,
stretched over time, grows thin,
then one day snaps with a popping sound.

No verb for accidentally
breaking a thing
while trying to get it open
 —a marriage, for example.

No particular phrase for
losing a book
in the middle of reading it,
and therefore never learning the end.

There is no expression, in English, at least,
for avoiding the sight
of your own body in the mirror,
for disliking the touch
of the afternoon sun,
for walking into the flatlands and dust
that stretch out before you
after your adventures are done.

No adjective for gradually speaking less and less,
because you have stopped being able
to say the one thing that would
break your life loose from its grip.

Certainly no name that one can imagine
for the aspen tree outside the kitchen window,
in spade-shaped leaves
spinning on their stems,
working themselves into
a pale-green, vegetable blur.

No word for waking up one morning
and looking around,
because the mysterious spirit
that drives all things
seems to have returned,
and is on your side again.

In the play we’ve just experienced, the two couples, as close as they are to each other, seem to have different views of what their relationships are about.

We witness the collision of the wishes of each couple for their lives. There are several couples here, not simply the two married ones. The betrayal of the friendship bond, as Gabe sees it, is an uncoupling of the two men. The women also lose their closeness, though this break seems less complete. How do friendships snap? And, when they do, do they make a popping sound?

Beth and Tom find other partners who seem to help them re-discover parts of themselves they had lost in their relationship together. Gabe and Karen then must turn to themselves, with their awareness of missing pieces of each other, as they have perhaps, in Gabe’s words, “let practical matters outweigh abandon”.

BARRY

Seminar by Diana Ong

Seminar by Diana Ong

Almost from the outset of this play we’re challenged to think about the limits and boundaries of relationships, our assumptions of the other, how well we know the people we think we know, and how much we can know of another or ourselves. These questions reverberate as the story unfolds, and, as the layers of history become revealed, the assumptions we’ve made about the characters continue to be revised in the light of new information.

Relationships are, in part, about stories: The stories we tell about ourselves, and the stories we tell ourselves about the other. Gabe & Karen have their story about their counterpart couple, Tom & Beth. Tom and Beth they tell themselves, are just like them: loving each other and taking some pleasure in the regularity and predictability of settled life. This story helps Gabe & Karen enjoy their life, just as it is, without noticing that there may be something lacking. G&K have constructed an image of Tom & Beth’s relationship that bolsters their own choices and subjectivities. This requires, as it always does, careful unconscious editing and selective inattention. Their story is set.

The story of the play itself begins simply–a dinner, a gastronomic travelogue, a typical evening,–one of countless like it–among close friends. It’s a familiar tapestry to the hosts, and presumably familiar in some form to the audience, as well.

Suddenly, the confirming mirror shatters as Beth breaks down just before dessert (a lemon almond cake, made with polenta instead of flour. The first couple is shaken by this news, and each goes into what I imagine to be an old adaptive coping style: Karen gets outraged and moralistic, and Gabe gets baffled and goes into a laconic withdrawal.

MOLLY

Donald Margulies is a playwright who is clever about shifting our sympathies over the course of the play – just as happens with the characters themselves. In the first scene, we see Gabe and Karen as a couple sharing a passion for food, wine, travel -. In this scene, their intensity is about the food – the most erotic moment of this opening scene comes in their description of an old woman in Italy crushing tomatoes with her knobby hands in preparing pomodoro. When Beth, sobbing, tells her story, Gabe and Karen are, of course, sympathetic and upset for her. The following scene with Tom and Beth adds a layer of complexity, and we, the audience, see that our feelings and alliances may become more fluid.

In Act II, when we go back to the beginning of the foursome, we see foreshadowings. Beth and Tom step into an embodied idealization on Martha’s Vineyard and right into their roles as a mirror of Gabe and Karen’s couple. They begin by sparring and in retrospect one can see the seeds of trouble. Tom wants what Gabe has – even in college, Tom was stealing Gabe’s girlfriends. Beth states that she’s ready for a change. After she and Tom commiserate about the wearisomeness of the single life, Tom asks Gabe -what does she think of me? Gabe says – she likes you. Tom says – then I like her. And so it begins.

Tom and Beth stay in these roles – at least on the visible surface – for many years, apparently trying to make it work, despite what we later discover was a very early disruption in their marriage.

We might begin to think – what led them to stay in this relationship? Was the friendship a determining factor? What does make unhappy couples stay together? We’ve all seen this, personally and professionally, and there are many variables.

Gabe and Karen come to find that they know nothing about Tom and Beth’s early troubles – or their later ones – there was a lot they didn’t know, and, as it turns out, a lot they have stayed unaware of in their own relationship.

No one truly knows what goes on in a marriage, sometimes least of all the people in it.

BARRY

Nothing remains simple in these characters for us, or for them in their relationships. As we do in our own lives, they each view themselves and their actions with a particular subjectivity: we make up our own stories. If we insist that our relationship partners conform to our stories about them little or no communication is possible.

The friendships of the like-sexed pairs pose interesting material for us to use to think about these ideas. While both sets of relationships seem to have been damaged, the scene between the women seems to move into just a bit more mutuality than does the scene with the men, where no understanding of the other’s subjectivity seems to have been achieved. There’s the impresion that the women might have some hope for continuity. There is none for the men.

Gabe & Tom each insists that the other remains a character in the stories they tell themselves about the other. Each feels mortally hurt by the other’s rejection of his story. Between them there is no understanding or tolerance of the legitimacy of each other’s experience. In the end we feel that the long friendship has snapped. You can practically hear the pop.

Beth & Karen’s interaction, on the other hand feels like it was more relational. The two talk more about the structure of their relationship–and what mutual needs sustained it .

MOLLY

Gabe and Karen, each in their own ways, cannot accept the changes in their friends as they differentiate from them, leaving the roles Gabe and Karen have wanted them in. Gabe feels betrayed – as if the entire friendship had been a sham. In the story of Icarus, most people forget that before he crashed, Icarus had flown. Gabe, and maybe even Tom, seems to forget or to discredit the good times they had had. Perhaps Tom and Beth’s crashed marriage could be seen as a success, helping them grow into a place where they are now more able to have full relationships.

They could be seen as thriving, each presenting themselves as happy for the first time in years. And, in the end, Gabe and Karen must look to themselves and their own relationship to see what they have now that their carefully constructed extended family has broken. Karen asks – How do we not get lost? We are left to imagine where they go from here – all four of them. If you were to write the story of the next five years or so for these couples – the romantic pairs and the friendships – what would it be for each of them? What do you anticipate given what you know now?

BARRY

So, what might this play have to teach us about psychotherapy, group therapy and co-therapy? For one thing, the play is about relationships–what fosters them and what is incompatible. As therapists (and co-therapists) none of us is immune to getting stuck in our own stories about the other, to thinking that what works for us in our lives would work best for them, to overidentifying, and losing the otherness of the other’s subjectivity in the velcro of our own internal issues. There are limits to what we can know about the other, even in the multi-mirrored setting of the therapy group. We are made aware that the next piece of information we learn might change how we perceive the other, and there may always be a next piece of information. We always have to be open to revising our story about others and about our part in relationships. We must always be on the lookout for the unexamined, and remember that openness to the unexpected is what enlivens.

MOLLY

As the playwright demonstrates, there are many layers to stories, and, just as he pulls us along opening up other parts, we need to, as therapists, stay curious about what other layers there may be to the stories we are hearing. Assuming we know, or knowing too much, can, as Winnicott said, can stifle the patient’s (or the group’s) creativity.

BARRY

Poem – Special Problems in Vocabulary
BY TONY HOAGLAND

There is no single particular noun
for the way a friendship,
stretched over time, grows thin,
then one day snaps with a popping sound.

No verb for accidentally
breaking a thing
while trying to get it open
 —a marriage, for example.

No particular phrase for
losing a book
in the middle of reading it,
and therefore never learning the end.

There is no expression, in English, at least,
for avoiding the sight
of your own body in the mirror,
for disliking the touch
of the afternoon sun,
for walking into the flatlands and dust
that stretch out before you
after your adventures are done.

No adjective for gradually speaking less and less,
because you have stopped being able
to say the one thing that would
break your life loose from its grip.

Certainly no name that one can imagine
for the aspen tree outside the kitchen window,
in spade-shaped leaves
spinning on their stems,
working themselves into
a pale-green, vegetable blur.

No word for waking up one morning
and looking around,
because the mysterious spirit
that drives all things
seems to have returned,
and is on your side again.