The French box office workers were decidedly underwhelmed when Jewish American playwright Donald Margulies arrived for the opening of his "Dinner With Friends" at the Comedie des Champs-Elysees in Paris last year. Impatient with his pidgin French, they brusquely shooed him aside to wait on native patrons. "It was just so French," notes Margulies, who was once dubbed "my Jewish playwright" by impresario Joe Papp. "They knew who I was. They just didn't have any time for me."
Fortunately, the Pulitzer committee made time for Margulies, who won the coveted prize for "Friends" in April. The play, about the effect of divorce on a yuppie couple and their best friends, opens this week at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.
"Dinner With Friends" began, as does all of Margulies' work, with an observation that troubled him. The now 46-year-old playwright had arrived at midlife, married for 13 years to a physician he had been with almost half his life. They had a young son, Miles, a standard poodle named Beckett, a Burmese cat and a cozy home in New Haven, Conn. But all around them, relationships were crumbling.
"Couples I had thought were constant were suddenly combusting," Margulies says, speaking by telephone from his New Haven study. The "succession of domestic catastrophes" led to a comedy-drama about what happens to relationships over time; the piece culminates with one character's dream of two couples in her marital bed: herself and her husband in youth and in middle age.
"Dinner" may be the author's least specifically Jewish play, but it's vintage Margulies. "What it shares with all my work," he says, "is an overriding sense of loss."
The feeling, he suggests, stems from his childhood in the Jewish "high-rise ghettos" of Brooklyn and Coney Island, surrounded by Holocaust survivors who "instilled in me a kind of fatalism and morbid fascination for recent Jewish history." At 5, Margulies asked about the concentration camp tattoo on his neighbor Ida's arm; at 11, he read "Death of a Salesman" and felt "guilt and shame... for recognizing in the Lomans truths about my own family." His father, then barely 40, was an overworked wallpaper salesman, "physically affectionate but prone to mysterious silences." For decades, he lived in fear of losing a job he loathed.
It was only after Bob Margulies' death at 62 in 1987 ("He basically died of malpractice," the writer says), that the author was able to explore his feelings about father in "The Loman Family Picnic". "What's Wrong With This Picture?" was inspired by a nightmare Margulies had three weeks after his mother unexpectedly died of a heart attack in 1978. In the dream (and the play), the doorbell rings during the family's shiva; the writer opens the door only to find his mother covered in mud from the grave. "I don't even want to talk about it," she snaps. "I just want to jump in the shower."
Margulies believes losing his mother and father while still in his 20's gave him a certain fearlessness as a writer. "There is something liberating," he says, "in not feeling you have to earn the approval of your parents." He continued to churn out plays haunted by Brooklyn and by "the legacy that parents inflict upon their children." In "Found a Peanut," adult actors portray New York kids circa 1962 (Margulies' Burmese is named after Little Earl, the character who is "always in your face.") "The Model Apartment" is "a sort of Frankenstein story" about two Holocaust survivors and their obese, schizophrenic daughter.
Nevertheless, success was so elusive for Margulies that he considered leaving the theater altogether after toiling for a decade to establish himself as a playwright. He even moved alone to L.A. for a time, leaving his wife back East while he tried his hand as a supervising producer on a TV series. "I hated it," he recalls. "I quit after six days. I just thought I was having a breakdown."
Then came "Sight Unseen," Margulies' black comedy about a painter, catapulted to superfame, who struggles with his identity as an artist and a Jew. The 1991 piece put the artist at a crossroads: "I'd put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into the American theater, and I thought, 'This is the best I can do,'" he recalls. "If people didn't like the play, I was going to have to [quit]." Fortunately, life imitated art, and Margulies' saga of a famous artist thrust him into the limelight.
The Pulitzer, he reflects, has come at just the right time in his career: "If I had won before I had a body of work, it might have disabled me," admits Margulies, who has penned screenplays for Robin Williams and Spike Lee and whose recent piece, "God of Vengeance," is an adaptation of the 1906 play by Yiddish writer Sholem Asch. "I've seen it derail people, because it brings with it a whole new set of expectations." Margulies believes the Pulitzer acknowledges not just "Dinner With Friends" but his entire body of work. "It's an awesome club to be a member of," he says.
"Dinner With Friends" runs through Oct. 29 at the Geffen, (310) 208-5454.