Sunday, March 11, 2001

Pulitzer winner's plays hold mirror to life

Margulies writes simply, objectively

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Two years ago, Donald Margulies was thinking seriously about taking a break from playwrighting.

        He'd been at it for more than 20 years, most of his adult life. Dinner with Friends, which makes its Cincinnati premiere this week at Ensemble Theatre, was going to be his last play for a while.

        Mr. Margulies' area of dramatic exploration is America's modern, upscale, educated middle class — the primary theater audience. It's not a topic that's usually serious fodder for drama.

    What: Dinner with Friends.
    When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday March 14-April 1.
    Where: Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, 1127 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine.
    Tickets: $25, $20 students and seniors.
    Information: (513) 421-3555.
    Read the review: Thursday on Cincinnati.Com, keyword: theater.
        Dinner with Friends is about two couples, best friends, and what happens when one couple goes through a divorce. Mr. Margulies, a veteran of a 20-year marriage, was inspired to write the play as he and his wife watched their married friends splitting all around them.

        Dinner became the kind of hit few playwrights are lucky to have. After premiering at the 1998 Humana Festival for New American Plays in Louisville it was quickly optioned for off-Broadway where it's in its 17th month. Dinner won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2000.

        The ETC production, Wednesday through April 1, will feature company veterans Annie Fitzpatrick and Robert Rais and guest performers Richard Kuhlman and Pamela Sue Martin (of the television series Nancy Drew Mysteries and Dynasty.)

        Typical for Mr. Margulies, there are no villains in Dinner, as there rarely are out-and-out villains in life. Nice people do bad things, not-so-nice people have moments of grace.

        One of Mr. Margulies' hallmarks as a writer is his objectivity. He shifts the audience's loyalties from moment to moment. “It is a challenge to remain objective,” he says, “but writers have to be rigorous, it behooves us to see both sides of an argument. To be simplistic is not acceptable.”

        Within that so-easy-to-dismiss middle-class archetype, says Mr. Margulies “there are truths we can all relate to illuminated by people we might otherwise dismiss.”

        He has watched couples in the audience “shifting in their seats. Their body language toward each other is telling,” he says.

        Mr. Margulies hit his stride as a playwright in 1988 with The Model Apartment. During the '90s, he delivered a string of highly regarded contemporary plays that, like life, were both comedies and dramas — Sight Unseen, Collected Stories, Loman Family Picnic. They were always nominated for major awards and even won some, including two off-Broadway Obies for best play.

        Even so, Mr. Margulies was asking himself, “How long can I do this? How long can I have these nine-week wonders and sustain myself spiritually and financially?”

        What is usually a payoff for winning a Pulitzer — more work — is nothing new to Mr. Margulies. He's always has had enough. The prize has been that his past works are getting major revivals, including The Model Apartment in Los Angeles and Sight Unseen on Broadway.

        Mr. Margulies didn't start out as a writer. He grew up as a middle-class Jewish kid in Brooklyn, N.Y., and claims his family went to Broadway shows instead of the synagogue. (Nevertheless, his most recent play is an adaptation of the almost century-old God of Vengeance by Sholom Asch.)

        Writing for the theater was never part of the plan. “I was a boy who could draw. I garnered attention and approval and started winning awards at school. It was a wonderful entree to a world beyond Brooklyn.”

        He continued studying art in college, at State University of New York-Purchase. He makes a script written for a campus show sound casual, but his reaction to the applause wasn't. “It performed to a packed room in the library. It was truly a life-changing experience.”

        He still makes collages, “a process that is very much the same” as writing a play. “They're both making a new creation out of other elements. Assemblages, snippets of memories, dreams, imagination.”

        Mr. Margulies supplements the family income by writing for Hollywood. He recently completed a four-hour miniseries adaptation of Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full. It was intended for next season, but Mr. Margulies is eying the impending screenwriters' and actors' strikes and says “who knows?”

        Those fat Hollywood paychecks don't tempt Mr. Margulies to move West and settle down by the swimming pool. Writing for large and small screens, he says, “subsidizes” his playwriting, including the script he's working on now which “feels like the next play.”

        He won't say what it is, but he will say what it isn't. “I wanted to get away from domestic drama for a while,” he says.

        “Appropriately it's a compilation of themes that have interested me all along.” Those include “the relationship between the artist and society, the relationship between experience and art and commerce, and a sense of loss seems to permeate everything I've ever written. In change there is always loss.

        “Mortality is much more of a character — that's where I am in my life.”

        “I've been toiling in this profession for a long time,” says Mr. Margulies. “It's gratifying, as a son and an artist, and as a man and an artist, to look back at the body of work and see that.”


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