When the Geffen Playhouse commissioned a new piece from Donald Margulies five years ago, the award-winning playwright bided his time.
“It’s been my experience that one mustn’t write a play that one isn’t passionate about,” Margulies said recently by phone from New Haven, Conn., where he teaches playwriting at Yale University.
He is now putting the finishing touches on the final result: a study of journalism and morality that is about the Iraq War — yet isn’t.
“Time Stands Still,” which will be performed at the Geffen Feb. 3 to March 15, is set in the New York world of James and Sarah, a journalist and a photojournalist. Sarah has been injured while covering a war, and is on crutches and painkillers when she arrives home. James had been on the front lines with her until emotional strain forced him to fly home early — before the roadside bomb went off that left Sarah in a coma and her interpreter dead. As James assumes the role of caretaker, the couple’s differing views on how to get back to normal test their relationship.
“The play is about their efforts to reintegrate into their life following this near-catastrophe,” Margulies said. “The idea seemed to touch on themes that I thought were very much in the zeitgeist. It was something I needed to write.”
The war in the play, he said, is modeled on the Iraq War but represents any of the myriad clashes at work in the world at a given time.
“The Iraq War is specific to the time in which we are living, but there is always war,” he said. “I didn’t want this to be branded an Iraq War play, because I think the themes are larger than current events and transcend this particular war.”
How to lead a moral life in modern times is one such theme — a question raised when Sarah and James meet up with their close friend, Richard, a photo editor. While the couple was overseas, Richard acquired a girlfriend half his age, the “very hot” Mandy (played by Alicia Silverstone), who elicits evolving opinions from Sarah and James as she brings fresh perspective to issues of compatibility and personal responsibility.
“There are questions of love and marriage, and trying to be a moral person and trying to be a citizen of the world — a bunch of questions are raised in this play. I try to dramatize dilemmas and let the audience go home and think about it,” Margulies said.
Unlike in many of his previous plays, Judaism is not an ingredient in Margulies’ newest endeavor. The playwright’s works have often been carried by Jewish protagonists — most recently Eric Weiss, the newly successful Manhattan novelist who returns to the borough of his birth in “Brooklyn Boy” (2004).
Margulies’ other plays include Pulitzer Prize-winner “Dinner With Friends” (2000), Obie Award-winners “Sight Unseen” (1992) and “The Model Apartment” (1995) and “Shipwrecked! An Entertainment — The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told by Himself)” (2007).
“Particularly in my earlier work, I was fascinated by my Jewish identity and the way I was raised as a baby boomer, post-Holocaust Jew growing up in Brooklyn,” Margulies said. “We weren’t religious Jews, but we were certainly cultural Jews. The experience of growing up Jewish in Brooklyn is indelible.”
Margulies was exposed to theater early in life.
“My parents were of the generation that went to Broadway and really revered the theater and show business,” he said. His father sold wallpaper, and his mother stayed home to raise the children. They started taking Margulies and his brother on the D train into the city to see Broadway musicals when he was 8.
“Those adventures to Broadway were always very exhilarating,” he recalled. “There was something terribly exciting about being in the large, grand space of a theater and having it fill with laughter, with all these people having a shared experience.”
Margulies majored in art at Purchase College in New York, putting his “writing bug” on the back burner and pursuing what looked to be a lucrative future in visual arts. It wasn’t until he was 20 that he mustered the courage to try his hand at writing. A mentor then told him he should write plays full time, and Margulies began to envision a shift in his career.
“Instead of being a starving artist, I’d be a starving playwright,” he said with a laugh. “It’s mysterious to me why I thought I could possibly succeed at this, but for some reason, I thought it might work.”
“Time Stands Still” marks the fourth collaboration between Margulies and Tony Award-winning director Daniel Sullivan (“Proof”). Sarah will be played by Anna Gunn (“Deadwood,” “Breaking Bad”), and James will be played by David Harbour (“Quantum of Solace,” “Kinsey,” Tony Award-nominee for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”).
Previews for “Time Stands Still” at the Geffen Playhouse begin Feb. 3; the play opens Feb. 11. For more information, visit www.geffenplayhouse.com.