Playwright Donald Margulies favors dark themes, such as loss, grief and the often painful legacies parents transmit to their children, as well as the struggles of the successful or unfulfilled artist.
His “The Model Apartment (1988), about Holocaust survivors haunted by their troubled daughter, draws on his own fraught childhood in a Brooklyn neighborhood filled with survivors and recently had a lauded revival in New York. “What’s Wrong With This Picture?” (1985) was spurred, in part, by a dream in which his mother, who died when Margulies was just 23, returned from the grave. “Collected Stories” (1996), now playing at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura, revolves around a Jewish writer, Ruth, whose protégé riffs off of Ruth’s memories to write her own breakthrough novel. And “Dinner With Friends,” for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000, tells of two married couples whose friendship is tested when one breaks up.
Now Margulies’ witty yet poignant new play, “The Country House,” inspired by the pastoral comedies of Anton Chekhov and which is currently at the Geffen Playhouse, “is another kind of meditation on how people grieve,” the playwright, still boyish at 59, said during a recent interview at the theater in Westwood. Set in the Berkshires exactly one year after a member of a theatrical family has died of cancer, the play follows relatives and friends — both famous and wannabes — who gather to hash out their grief and their tense relationships, as well as their camaraderie and jealousies as artists.
Among them is Anna (Blythe Danner), the family’s matriarch, a fading superstar actress grappling not only with her age but with the death of her only daughter. Anna’s son, Elliot, is a failed actor and, it turns out, a dismal novice playwright who often drowns his sorrows in the bottle; her former son-in-law, Walter, is a former theatrical giant who now unabashedly makes blockbuster films with titles like “Truck Stop 4.” Family friend Michael is a hit TV actor trying to absolve the sin of his success by returning to the theater, while Anna’s granddaughter, Susie, is trying her best to keep the family together.
“This play, which seems on the surface perhaps unlike other plays of mine, is very consistent with my previous themes,” Margulies said. “It’s enjoyable as a comedy, but, like Chekhov’s comedies, it is also subversively sad.”
The characters’ ennui stems not only from the death of Anna’s daughter, but also from their various artistic endeavors. Michael, for example, “is a take on the character of the dissatisfied, spiritually lost country doctor in Chekhov’s ‘Uncle Vanya,’ ” Margulies said. “Michael, who became famous playing a doctor on television, too, is experiencing a kind of spiritual malaise and is looking for causes and a sense of purpose in the world.
“Walter, by way of contrast, is kind of a refreshing character in that he’s deliberately sold out, having chosen to use his gifts in a totally commercial, pop vein. He’s not tortured at all about it. So he gives me a wonderful opportunity for a debate about art versus commerce and integrity versus pragmatism.”
For his own part, Margulies appears to have balanced both sides of that artistic coin. Three years ago, after the Manhattan Theatre Club (MTC) granted him a commission to write what would become “The Country House,” he said, “I was hesitant to premiere a new work cold in New York, which can be so merciless. You basically have one night to prove yourself, primarily to The New York Times, and if it doesn’t go well or that critic doesn’t have a good time, it affects the future of the play.”
Thus the decision was made to open “The Country House” at the Geffen in Los Angeles, where Margulies has premiered five other works, in a co-production with the MTC before that theater’s run, beginning Oct. 2. The physical distance from New York gives Margulies a chance to rework the production if needed, along with director Daniel Sullivan, before it goes to Broadway.
“I felt that at this stage of my career, I have to be a little protective of my work, because this is what I do for a living and helps send my son to college,” the playwright explained. “Time has become much more precious the older I get, and I don’t want to spend two to four years on a new play and have it close in 10 weeks. I really need to see some return on the work that I put in.”
When Margulies first received his MTC commission, he proposed that he might try an adaptation of a play by Chekhov, August Strindberg or Henrik Ibsen because “every contemporary playwright has at one time or another tackled adaptation, and I thought I would want to give it a try myself.”
But after perusing other playwrights’ adaptations of classic plays — David Mamet’s “Uncle Vanya,” for example — Margulies decided that “the body of adaptation work that’s out there didn’t really need my take. So I thought, ‘What if I do my own kind of mash-up of Chekhovian themes, archetypes and images?’
“In ‘The Country House,’ there are elements of ‘The Seagull,’ ‘The Cherry Orchard’ and ‘Uncle Vanya,’ but it’s not any one of those plays. It is a riff, an improvisation of those plays, but in a very contemporary setting and very much through my lens.”
Like the play’s characters, Margulies has experienced his share of artistic ups and downs. At 29, expecting the birth of his son, he received his first review in The New York Times, for his play, “Gifted Children:” “It was vicious and very dismissive,” Margulies recalled. “That first drubbing was followed six months later by a second slap on the wrist, which was for my off-Broadway debut, ‘Found a Peanut.’ It was supposed to be my breakthrough until Frank Rich [then The New York Times’ famed theater critic] saw it and didn’t like it. And then, just a few months after that, my first production at the Manhattan Theatre Club, ‘What’s Wrong With This Picture?’ wasn’t going very well in rehearsal, and I didn’t believe I would survive my third pan in the space of a year. So I did something that young playwrights rarely do, which is I insisted that we ‘un-invite’ critics. And the play ran [for only] its subscription run, which was around three weeks.”
Out of this artistic rollercoaster ride — as well as other disappointments — came Margulies’ 1991 breakout play, “Sight Unseen,” about a Brooklyn Jewish superstar painter grappling with the sacrifices that come with success. The play earned rave reviews, a Pulitzer nomination, and catapulted Margulies into the arena of the most esteemed contemporary American playwrights.
Another Pulitzer nod came his way five years later for “Collected Stories,” which began when Margulies was intrigued by a lawsuit brought by British author Stephen Spender against the younger writer David Leavitt. (Leavitt allegedly had used aspects of Spender’s life story to write his book “While England Sleeps.”)
Margulies was drawn to the subject, in part, because of his own experience with his play “The Loman Family Picnic,” which reflects his personal connection to Arthur Miller’s classic “Death of a Salesman” and its haunting protagonist, Willy Loman. “It’s my story of growing up the son of a Brooklyn [wallpaper] salesman — which was impossible to do without acknowledging the specter of Willy Loman, of which I, even as a young boy, was aware,” Margulies wrote in an email. But, he added, “As far as I know, Miller wouldn’t even read it. He objected to my use of ‘Loman’ in the title and wanted me to change it. I took my case to him in a personally revealing letter in which I declined to alter my title — to which he never responded. He snubbed me even years later when we both were honored by the Dramatists Guild — he for life achievement and I for my Pulitzer winner, ‘Dinner With Friends.’ ”
Margulies channeled some of this skirmish into “Collected Stories,” in which a student, Lisa, borrows her mentor’s memories of a youthful affair to write her own book.
Although some viewers have perceived the character of Lisa, Ruth’s protégé, as a betrayer, even a snake, Margulies staunchly disagreed. “That’s a misrepresentation of the play as an ‘All About Eve’ story, but it’s really about the mentor-protégé relationship,” he said.
Borrowing elements of another’s work, he said, “comes with the territory of being an author, because we take everything that we observe or hear or learn and refashion it into something else.
“That’s much of what art is, isn’t it?”