Out of This Life

Post-Pulitzer, Playwright Donald Margulies Says He Still Feels Like a ‘Pischer’

By Gordon Haber

Published June 08, 2009.
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As a young man, the Coney Island-reared Donald Margulies worked a day job as a graphic artist for years, while writing plays on the side. His big break came in 1991 with “Sight Unseen,” a play about a successful and, perhaps morally compromised, artist. Other notable plays by Margulies include “The Loman Family Picnic” (1993) and “Brooklyn Boy” (2004), both of which explore the author’s ambivalence towards his place of origin.

Margulies, who teaches playwriting at Yale School of Drama, has received a number of grants and awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, two Obies and, in 2000, a Pulitzer Prize for his play “Dinner with Friends,” an absorbing drama about the pitfalls of friendship and marriage.

Stuff of Life: Donald Margulies, above, has been writing plays that speak to people for 30 years.
Henry DiRocco
Stuff of Life: Donald Margulies, above, has been writing plays that speak to people for 30 years.

This year has been a busy one for Margulies. His play “Time Stands Still,” about a wounded journalist just home from Iraq, premiered at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. In New York, the picaresque “Shipwrecked” was produced by Primary Stages, and a revival of “Sight Unseen” was staged by the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, N.J. On the West Coast, a revival of “Collected Stories” will run at the South Coast Repertory in Orange County through June 14. Next year, the Broadway house of the Manhattan Theater Club will stage “Time Stands Still” in February, followed by another revival of “Collected Stories” in April, this one starring the impressive Linda Lavin.

In a recent interview with writer Gordon Haber, Margulies spoke about productivity, success and visceral audience reactions to his work.

Gordon Haber: It seems like you’re having a particularly good year.

Donald Margulies: Well, all I’ve ever wanted was to have my work done and seen. So I am pleased that my work is a bit more visible this year. But perhaps it makes me appear more prolific than I actually am. I may have a lot of pins in the map right now, but I’ve been doing this for 30 years. It is exciting that people are also now rediscovering older plays, plays I wrote at the beginning of my career. I’m tickled by it, but I still feel like a pischer.

It’s interesting you should say that, as in your work there seems to be a preoccupation with success.

Certainly it’s a motif that runs through my work, a fascination or obsession depending upon how strong a word you want to use. Look, I’m a Baby Boomer. I grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust and the Depression. My father was personally devastated by the Depression. He felt terribly insecure, so in some ways my own mishegos comes naturally. Like my father I feel like I survived the Depression. It still feels present to me, these issues of financial security. These feelings don’t go away.

These money issues are present in some of your plays, but there’s also an ambivalence towards the trappings of success, the distractions.

Perhaps. In “Sight Unseen” I wrote about an artist before I became successful. I didn’t really know, in some sense, what I was writing about — “Sight Unseen” was my breakthrough play. And I found that it was predictive. It brought me recognition but also expectation. Now people are curious and invested and critical of my output. It’s a mixed blessing of a successful career as an artist. Toiling in obscurity is a kind of gift. There is a certain loss of purity, once success enters the picture.

Is there a connection between these issues and the fact that many of your protagonists are Jewish? While I wouldn’t want to say “Donald Margulies is a Jewish playwright,” it seems that these themes do somehow relate to Jewishness.

Well we can expand it and say that artists of all kinds have to deal with a sudden public face. But yes, there is something Jewish about it. You know, the mother character in the “Loman Family Picnic,” who is somewhat based on my mother, she says: “Dream my son, but not too big.” It’s a Jewish problem. It would be disingenuous to suggest that this is not correct. But labeling a writer because of religion or upbringing is not something a writer appreciates.

Your plays also present an interesting moral ambiguity. The audience is never guided towards feeling one way or another, even when a particular character behaves disagreeably.

I work hard to keep the tennis match going so that the sympathies of the characters shift from one moment to the next. I don’t want to give the answer to any moral questions that I raise. I don’t have answers. What’s interesting is that when we read fiction we’re more ready to accept these ambiguities. Because it’s one on one, writer to reader. But in the theater the audience becomes a whole person. At the premiere of “Dinner with Friends” when Tom, the wayward husband, says to his friend: “I hope you never know the loneliness I’ve known,” it became like a Jerry Springer moment. A woman in the audience stood up and yelled “Pig!” I had sympathy for Tom’s imperfections, but that play was a lightning rod for some people. People feel like this stuff is out of their lives.

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