Donald Margulies was in his New Haven study when a surprising call came from Gil Cates, the renowned artistic director of the Geffen Playhouse.
Cates — who died last November at 77 — had overseen four Margulies productions at the Geffen, had just directed the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright’s fanciful fairy tale “Shipwrecked!” and had in mind another family play for the author.
“He said, ‘Donald, how would you like to write me a Christmas show?’ And I was amused,” Margulies, 58, said, speaking at the Geffen just before a rehearsal of his new play, “Coney Island Christmas.”
“You don’t usually seek out a Jewish playwright to write you a Christmas show. So I said, ‘Gil, if I’m going to write you a Christmas show, you know it’s going to be a Jewish Christmas show, right?’ And he said, ‘Great!’ ”
Margulies’ response was hardly unexpected. Joe Papp, the late founder of New York’s Public Theater, dubbed Margulies “my Jewish playwright.” Throughout his more than 35 years as a dramatist, Margulies has often explored Jewish identity and family dynamics, from his early plays, like “The Loman Family Picnic” and “The Model Apartment,” through to later works, including his Pulitzer nominees “Sight Unseen” and “Collected Stories” as well as 2005’s “Brooklyn Boy.” In varied ways that have evolved over the years, he has, at times, drawn on his childhood in a tiny apartment in 1960s Brooklyn, where his father toiled as a wallpaper salesman and Holocaust survivors, with their mysterious and terrifying forearm tattoos, walked the neighborhood.
For Margulies, “Coney Island Christmas” represents a more ebullient return to Brooklyn, as well as a lighter take on what he calls the “ghetto mentality.”
Based on the short story “The Loudest Voice,” by Grace Paley, the comedy opens in the San Fernando Valley, as the elderly Shirley Abramowitz regales her great-granddaughter with a tale of how she came to play Jesus in her grammar-school Christmas pageant in 1930s Brooklyn. The action then shifts back in time, as the pageant is rehearsed and conflict ensues: Shirley’s mother sees the pageant and its implications as “a creeping pogrom” that will “make our children forget who they are”; Mr. Abramowitz (Arye Gross) argues for open-mindedness and contends that participation does not equal assimilation, while young Shirley longs only to perform.
Cates’ sudden death from heart failure last year, however, is what prompted Margulies, who was then preparing his play “Time Stands Still” for Broadway, to give himself a deadline of January 2012 to finish a first draft of the play, which he dedicated to his old friend. He remembers Cates as an “indomitable” figure and a “mensch” who identified strongly with the Jewish sensibilities in Margulies’ work. “His death just crushed me,” the playwright said, his voice hushed. “It seems quite hollow here at the Geffen without him.”
Cates envisioned “Coney Island Christmas” as becoming an annual holiday production at the Geffen. But if a yuletide pageant seems like something of a departure for Margulies, its themes fit snugly into his oeuvre. “I wasn’t invested in exploring Christmas, but rather in exploring the phenomenon of assimilation,” he said. He saw Paley’s story as “an opportunity to write about what it means to be an American, and to be of faith, any faith. The very comic notion of a Jewish girl asked to play Jesus is such a wonderful metaphor for lack of prejudice and a kind of ecumenical approach.”
Director Bart DeLorenzo said the play’s “central question” is, “Where is your allegiance?”
“Every character is trying to figure out where they stand — ‘Am I a Jew or a Christian or an American?’ — and a holiday like Christmas suddenly can make you feel you must choose some sort of side in this debate,” DeLorenzo said in a telephone interview.
Gross, who grew up in a Conservative home in Reseda, connects the characters to his late grandparents: “I can almost hear members of my family speaking the words as they are said in the play.”
Margulies said he based the characters and their worldview, in part, on his own beloved grandparents, as well as the immigrant and first-generation Jews of his childhood neighborhood, who saw America as a land of opportunity but harbored suspicions and distrust of non-Jews.
He was sitting in an upstairs office at the Geffen, where he wore a tweed jacket and round spectacles and exuded both the quietly confident manner of a successful artist and Yale professor.
Yet, at one point, the conversation turned again to his fraught childhood in Brooklyn, where his family “never had any money,” he said, and learning about the survivors in the neighborhood “was the beginning of my fear of Nazi persecution and a Germanophobia I still struggle with today.” As his alter ego, a newly successful novelist named Eric Weiss, says in “Brooklyn Boy,” he had to escape Brooklyn because he feared the chokehold the legacies of the Depression and the Holocaust had around his parents’ throats.
Margulies’ range of plays about Brooklyn, some written in the voice of a young man, others in the voice of artists in midlife, have helped him to exorcise some of those demons. “I’ve also been happily wed and well-analyzed,” he added, with a laugh. “But when I visit my friends in Park Slope, I still get a little creeped out. It’s just a primal feeling.”
It’s thus significant that Margulies set “Coney Island Christmas” in a more vibrant New York milieu decades before his time. “I had romanticized 1930s Brooklyn as being the golden years, of [immigrants] being new to America, when the country was still promising in a way it wasn’t when I was growing up in the 1960s,” he explained.
Not that the setting is without its share of urban grit. For visual inspiration, Margulies turned to the Depression-era paintings of Reginald Marsh, “where you can see the grime, the patina of urban dust,” he said.
And yet, overall, he said, “The play is very joyful. It’s life-affirming.”
For tickets and information about “Coney Island Christmas,” visit www.geffenplayhouse.com.