Last week, Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Donald Margulies paid a visit to Road Less Traveled Theater in Buffalo to participate in their American Theater Masters Series, and to see their production of his play, The Country House. Past participants in the series have included playwrights A.R. Gurney, Edward Albee, Stephen Adly-Guirgis, and Eric Bogosian; actor James Rebhorn; and director Pam MacKinnon.
In addition to The Country House, Margulies is the author of Time Stands Still, Brooklyn Boy, Sight Unseen, Collected Stories, and Dinner with Friends, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000.
As we sit down to talk about his career and the life of a playwright in the auditorium of Road Less Traveled, Margulies asks about the visits of previous “American Theater Masters.”
“Pete Gurney is from Buffalo, right?” he asks. “He is such a role model for me. I think it is great that he just keeps writing, and so boldly. It is so admirable.”
I relate a funny story of how Edward Albee had walked into the old Road Less Traveled space, looked at the unlit set for his play The Goat, and said, “So that’s their idea of a house designed by a world class architect?” The cutting remark sent of shock of horror through artistic director Scott Behrend, to whom I whispered, “Relax. He can’t know what the set looks like in this light! He messes with people.”
Later that evening after seeing the play, Albee went back stage, praised every element of the production, happily posed for photos, and partied with the company on into the night.
Margulies chuckles at the story.
“By the ‘90s he was more mellow,” says Margulies, “and that was the time when I got to know him. To me he was only lovely. As a colleague, he was always very generous to me. He was even self-deprecating. He was much sweeter as an old man. I did not know him well, but he came to see my plays. We sat on panels together; that sort of thing. And he was always lovely.
“Once, we were speaking at the College of New Jersey. It was a Thornton Wilder panel, and Edward was seated to my left and I got very emotional suddenly. Here I was at this moment of my career talking about Thornton Wilder and sitting next to Edward Albee! I turned to him and said, ‘Edward, I am very moved,’ and he said, ‘Oh, come on!’ and I said, ‘No. I am!’ It was a lovely little moment that playwrights sometimes get to experience. ‘Pinch me’ moments.”
Success has not diminished Margulies’ ability to savor his “pinch me” moments.
“Another one that comes to mind,” he recalls, “was the night of my Broadway debut, which was also my Broadway debacle, when Herb Gardner, whose play A Thousand Clowns was one of the first plays I ever saw and with whom I became friends, sat directly behind me. As the actors were taking their bows, Herb put his hands on my shoulders in such a profound way. That stays with you.”
The play was What’s Wrong with this Picture.
“It was a nightmare,” says Margulies with a shudder. “Not just the critical reception. The whole thing. It is so painful when you know that something is not going well, and you are helpless to stop it.”
The experience did not discourage Margulies’ career.
“It was a setback, for sure. But I kept writing. It was not a new play. It was a play that had gotten some attention, but like some plays, it has had a torturous life. And unfortunately, the Broadway production, which did not do the play justice, just killed the play. The problem is now that if you don’t have the imprimatur of a New York success, regional theaters won’t go near a script. I hope I get to resurrect it during my lifetime.”
When Margulies talks, his words project the weight and wisdom of a good teacher. His stories are full of insights that could be useful to young writers. He does, in fact, teach playwriting at Yale.
“I am mentoring undergraduate students as playwrights. Invariably they gravitate towards television,” he says. “Television does not have the same stigma that it might have had for my generation. In my day, if you wanted to be a playwright, you really had to struggle in New York. You couldn’t do the L.A. thing. Aaron Sorkin is roughly of my generation, and we were coming up together. He went out to Hollywood. The rest is history.”
Prolific in television, over the past 30 years, Sorkin has written two works for the stage, A Few Good Men (1989) and The Farnsworth Invention (2007).
“What I am saying is, it seemed in those days that you really had to make a choice. Either you were going to be a playwright, or you were going into television. I stuck it out in New York, for better or for worse. There were some lean years, for sure, but I am glad I did.
“Now, young writers can do both. They can write from their homes, wherever they are, and press ‘send.’ It is a very different attitude toward television now, and the quality of what is on television is so radically superior to what was available to young playwrights 30 years ago.”
It is often observed that, like Eugene O’Neill, the plays of Donald Margulies cover a wide range of genres and styles. It sometimes seems that these plays could not possibly be by the same person.
“Different stories demand different modes of storytelling,” Margulies explains. “Take something like [the comedy] Shipwrecked. People ask, ‘Where did that come from?’ It doesn’t seem like a Donald Margulies play. Well, it is still part of my imagination and my writer’s DNA. I may not have tapped into it before, but it was always there. It is as available and as authentic to me as Sight Unseen.”
Sometimes Margulies talks about himself as if he were more than one person.
“The Model Apartment,” he says, “is a play that I wrote when I was in my 20s that I recently saw again at the Geffen [Playhouse in Los Angeles]. It is atypical. It is a tough play about holocaust survivors and their schizophrenic daughter who follows them to a retirement home in Florida. It is a black comedy. It is a harrowing play. When I saw it again recently, I admired the young writer who wrote it. There was such fearlessness in that young writer. And one loses that sense of fearlessness over time. The stakes become higher. The expectations are greater.”
What is the moment when Donald Margulies arrived as a major voice in the American Theater? The playwright does not hesitate in his response.
“Frank Rich’s review of Sight Unseen is a marker and milestone in my career,” he says. “Critics say they do not have that kind of power. They do.”
As Margulies anticipates seeing his play, The Country House at Road Less Traveled, I ask to know how the piece fits into the canon of his work.
“We have an obsession with ranking things in our Culture,” laments Margulies. “I think this play was misconstrued by New York critics. The title of the New York Times review was a play on the title of Chris Durang’s play, Masha and Sonya. I winced when I say that. Chris’s play was a parody of Chekhov. This is not a parody. I was just playing with Chekhov’s toolbox. Scott [Behrend] has a long history with this play. He was the assistant director for its first production in L.A., and I am delighted that the play is being done here!”