Onstage / Pulitzer playwright Donald Margulies visits for THE COUNTRY HOUSE at RLTP
Pulitzer playwright Donald Margulies
Margulies photo by Ethan Hill
The past year has been an unprecedented one for playwrights—Terrence McNally, Amy Herzog, Rajiv Joseph—visiting Western New York, and it’s not over yet. This month, Road Less Traveled Productions welcomes Donald Margulies, whose Pulitzer prize-winning Dinner With Friends opened its 2016-17 season and whose latest play, The Country House, closes it. Margulies will participate in an interview/Q&A session moderated by RLTP literary director Jon Elston on Saturday, May 6, at Road Less Traveled Theater, 500 Pearl Street. The event is free and open to the public. Here’s a teaser for that long-form interview:
You grew up in New York—Brooklyn—with parents who weren’t artists but loved Broadway, and nurtured your own love of theater. You never got bit with the acting bug, but said you instead discovered you were good at writing. How did you know you were good?
It was sort of magical thinking; I don’t really know why I thought I could do it. I reveled in the experience of live theater—there was a group of us in high school who would cut school to go see stuff; we were an unusual group!—but I never became an actor or theater geek. To back up, in junior high school, if a friend and I had to give a book report or committee report, it was always in a presentational way, and always involved some sort of parody of existing music, or a movie, or play. That was my first taste of writing and having work performed in front of people, and, to be completely crass about it, getting laughs. As a kid, I was myopic and not athletic, but I could draw facilely, and that gave me an identity and determined the course of my education, particularly when I got a scholarship to Pratt. While I was there, I really did hope and long for courses in dramatic literature and writing, so when I transferred to Purchase—because of an interest in humanities—I introduced myself to Julius Novick, and he agreed to sponsor me in a playwriting tutorial. I’d never written a play, but I wrote A Little Something, which dealt with a family secret that had been in my family and obviously weighing on me and intriguing me, because it became the subject of my very first play at age twenty.
Can we talk a little about Dinner With Friends, since readers also saw this play early in the season?
Most plays come out of where you are in your life at the time you sit down to write it, and, certainly with Dinner With Friends, my wife and I were in our forties and experiencing the phenomenon of couples whose marriages we interpreted to be just as strong and positive as ours imploding all around us. It was just an epidemic, and the play came out of that existential reckoning; that’s really the origin of it.
How do you feel looking back on it now?
It was revived three years ago at Roundabout, and I always feel a sense of fondness for the characters in my plays, and love to see them again. I’m older and different from the guy in his forties who wrote that play, but I can look back in affection. I’m not one of those writers who’s always wondering should I have rewritten this or that; I tend to view it as a worthy effort by this young man. I’m proud of Dinner With Friends, [while] some of my earlier work was… I’ll think “[that was not worthy].”
Dinner With Friends won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Which play of yours would you have given the Pulitzer?
I’ve been a Pulitzer finalist twice, and the first time was for Sight Unseen in 1992, and that was a wonderful gift; I never ever thought I would ever be thought of for such a prize. Suddenly I thought, “Gee, I could one day win one of those things,” and that was a bolster to my self-confidence. Then a couple of years later, Collected Stories was a finalist, and that was nice. And then came Dinner With Friends, and everyone said, “This is your year for the prize,” and I think maybe there was an element of “This writer has proven himself and this is a solid play; we should reward him.”
But, after The Model Apartment, David Ives [Venus In Fur, All In The Timing], told me, “You’re going to win the Pulitzer for this.” And arguably, The Model Apartment is a much more audacious play, but that doesn’t mean audacious plays are ones that win prizes. I have no regrets or gripes [with the way it worked out]. But, last year, I had the experience of seeing The Model Apartment, which I wrote thirty years ago, and I kind of marveled at the fearlessness of the writer who wrote it. It was kind of breathtaking to me that I was so fearless.
You don’t think you’re as fearless now?
No. The more established a writer gets, the bigger his audiences become, the higher the expectations are. I’ve become more self-conscious, not less; I would love not to worry so much, but, after a time, this play you’re spending five years on is your livelihood, and you want it to have a life, to generate an income, and entertain audiences, and all of that. The stakes are higher, and the self-consciousness does increase, at least in my experience.
Which sort of brings us to your latest work, The Country House. Was there anything you sought to do differently with it?
When I approached writing the play that became The Country House, I had just written Time Stands Still, which required immersion in some pretty upsetting history and research, and I wanted my next play to be something that I could have more fun with, frankly. For a time, I wanted to do a new adaptation of a classic, and when I began to read the translations of new adaptations of people like Chekhov and Strindberg, I didn’t think there was anything I needed to contribute to that body of work. I mulled it over and decided I wanted to do something Chekhovian without it being an adaptation, sort of a play with the archetypal ideas that floated around Chekhov’s work, but make them my own and put them in my own vernacular. I did have fun with it, enjoyed the writing of it, and mounting it was one of the most pleasurable experiences I’ve ever had. It was a multigenerational cast, and just really delightful people. Blythe Danner was such a generous and loving matriarch, not only to the characters, but to the company. She fostered such wonderful community; not all plays have that.
How many productions of The Country House have you seen?
In LA and New York, and one other in Berlin. It was a very German production of the play, and, inexplicably, a half hour longer. My wife speaks German and she deemed it a good translation, but it seemed lugubrious and pretentious and had completely gratuitous full frontal nudity. It was just completely wacky, and the lovely dramaturg saw me at intermission and said, “Are you happy?” and I said, “No, I’m not.” “Oh dear, we want you to be happy.” “Yeah, I know.” It was like a Bergman movie. It was very weird.
How could they get it so wrong?
Like many of my plays, it’s a pretty delicate process of a having just the right tone. Even though my plays sometimes have humor, they’re not really comedies, nor should they be played for laughs, and that’s certainly true of The Country House. The humor is character-driven; the characters are funny and have wit, and jokes come out of that, but there has to be a certain amount of respect for the dignity of the characters. When characters lose dignity for the sake of cheap laughs, you know you’re not being served. In the case of The Country House, Scott [Behrend, RLTP artistic director, who was assistant director to Dan Sullivan on the show’s world premiere at Geffen Playhouse] was present, so he has a real affinity for the play, and I’m glad he’s going to have his chance to direct it.
What was it that made playwriting a career for you? The biggest breakthrough?
There were so many times when I was supposed to have arrived and those arrivals didn’t quite materialize. The first when Joe Papp produced Found A Peanut; he was convinced that this was going to launch my career. Of course, it didn’t. [Former New York Times critic] Frank Rich disparaged the play, even though most New York critics liked it, and that didn’t herald the arrival of a new, exciting voice. A few years after that, playing at Manhattan Theater Club [What’s Wrong With This Picture? premiered there in 1985] was supposed to do things, but I wasn’t happy with that. So many of these markers… Sight Unseen, which came in my thirties after years of writing and persisting seemed to be a breakthrough and suggest that I might be able to earn a living. I’d been getting little grants and commissions, and I did my first TV pilot in those years, but I wasn’t confident there was a career there.
What kept you going?
I have a very strong revenge instinct. There’s no other explanation for it. But I know that when it came time for Sight Unseen, I did feel that if this doesn’t work, if this doesn’t click, I don’t know if I can continue being a playwright. I think my wife and I would have gone to LA, and I’d write for television, something I’d been holding off on, though I was able to write my TV pilot and an occasional after-school special. If Sight Unseen hadn’t gotten the imprimatur of Frank Rich, I would have reevaluated. We’d just had our child—our son is twenty-five—so that was a watershed moment that might have changed things up.
Given that you had a good foot in television, why plays?
I wanted to be a playwright, wanted to have a real respect and credibility as a playwright. Not that I had disparaging ideas about television, but, in my generation, when people went to write television, they stopped writing plays. Now there are so many more opportunities for playwrights in TV. I’m working on a miniseries even as we speak, and I’ve been writing movies and television for twenty years or more. I had a movie made a couple of years ago called The End of the Tour—it’s about David Foster Wallace—and I’ve written a lot of movies that will never get made that subsidized my playwriting career.
What do you still want to do?
I don’t know yet. I know it when it strikes me. I have a new play called Long Lost, which Dan Sullivan and I worked on last month at the Pacific Playwrights Festival [at South Coast Rep]. I was working on a libretto; that was something I thought I wanted to do, but I didn’t; it took me five years to figure that out. I’ve always loved musicals, but I don’t think I found the right material to adapt or create, so I just haven’t done it. It’s on the wish list.
See Donald Margulies May 6 at Road Less Traveled Theater.
Playwright Donna Hoke writes about theater for Spree and Forever Young. Twitter @donnahoke.