PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Donald Margulies

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Donald Margulies Donald Margulies, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright whose Sight Unseen took an artist back to his New York City roots, returns to that idea in Brooklyn Boy, now at Broadway's Biltmore Theatre.
Donald Margulies
Donald Margulies

The title character here is a Brooklyn-reared novelist, Eric Weiss, who, in the midst of the national success of his apparently semi-autobiographical book (it's called "Brooklyn Boy"), returns to his Brooklyn neighborhood to see his ailing father. The visit and the days and encounters that follow, prompt reflection on where he's been, where he's at, where he's going.

The play was commissioned by South Coast Repertory and had its world premiere there in fall 2004, in a co-production by SCR and Manhattan Theatre Club.

The day before the Feb. 3 opening of the production, directed by Daniel Sullivan, the 50-year-old Margulies spoke about the play's autobiographical elements, what pulls us from our home soil, and what he'd like to write next.

PLAYBILL.COM: Following weeks of rehearsal in California and a run in California, I'm curious to know what the past five weeks leading to the Broadway opening have been like, in terms of you and director Daniel Sullivan making more discoveries about the script. Have you rewritten?
Donald Margulies: I have done a little rewriting. Not structurally, but the kind of work that Dan and I do best together at this stage of the process: fine tuning certain beats, clarifying things, removing redundancies. Dan is very good at cutting jokes that he feels are detracting from the throughline. And I trust him completely because he has impeccable taste. This has been a totally joyful experience, really from the beginning.

PLAYBILL.COM: I think one of the reasons I was moved by the play is because I'm 40 years old now and entering the period of my life where I see I have history, there's a shape to my experiences. This is not a play you could have written at 25.
DM: No, absolutely not. It seems to really be resonating for audiences. Clearly, this could not have been a young man's play. I need to have lived as long as I have to have the perspective on all these relationships that I write about. PLAYBILL.COM: As specific as it is to the Brooklyn-Jewish experience, the play feels universal.
DM: It's precisely what I aspire to. The play is a big hit right now in Paris, by the way. It's been running in Paris since September, in a French-language production. I never would have predicted that the French would respond to it the way they have. They have truly embraced it, when it would have been thought to be so provincial and specific.

PLAYBILL.COM: Most of us do leave our childhood neighborhoods and families behind. Most people don't stay where they grew up. You don't put a fine point on the reason why Eric left Brooklyn.
DM: It's not as if there was a specific event that motivated him to leave. I think you touched on it: The universal experience is "leaving home," and this play deals with the notion of home in a very specific way. …People are able to supply their own equivalent to the same experience shown in the play. I think when one leaves home it's often not because you had a falling out or anything in particular. It's the need to break free — I think it's kind of innate in some people and not in others, and that's one of the things that the play talks about.

PLAYBILL.COM: Are you sick of the question you keep getting asked?
DM: Probably, yes!

PLAYBILL.COM: You know what the question is.
DM: I do!

PLAYBILL.COM: "Is the play autobiographical?"
DM: My response is similar to Eric Weiss' response, which is, "Why is that so important?" It would be disingenuous for me to suggest that I have no relationship to this man, this character. At the same time, what is dramatized is not a recreation of scenes from my life. The themes certainly resonate with me, and certain elements, but the particulars of it just are not congruent with my life and my experience.

PLAYBILL.COM: I've known people who are not in the creative business but who know playwrights or fiction writers. When they say, "You were writing about Aunt Millie in that chapter, or about me in that scene," it's a way for them to be part of something special they can't do, sort of like Eric's friend Ira [played by Ayre Gross], who is convinced he's the basis for a character in the Eric's novel.
DM: Part of what's so painful about Ira's need to be acknowledged [as the inspiration for a character] is that everyone is grasping at their own sense of immortality. The fact that they may have left a mark on something that will last beyond their lifespan becomes very important to people — for them to have a connection in some way to that. Even if it goes as far as recognizing who might have been the inspiration for something in a play or a book or a film.

PLAYBILL.COM: Do you ever fantasize about the future of your characters, about what happens after the curtain goes down?
DM: You know, I don't. I guess I leave that kind of speculation to audience members. Who knows? I might return to Jonathan Waxman [of Sight Unseen] at some point. I think that these protagonists, these quasi-alter egos, if you will, all take different forms at different stages in one's life. There are these doppelgangers within the body of one's work.

PLAYBILL.COM: It would be interesting to see Sight Unseen and Brooklyn Boy published together; they share themes. Both concern men who fled Brooklyn.
DM: It's funny that you say that. Someone just said, "Why don't you put together a volume of the Brooklyn plays?" The Loman Family Picnic was set in Brooklyn, as was Found a Peanut, as was What's Wrong With This Picture? And Sight Unseen has a foot in Brooklyn. If Sight Unseen is about leaving Brooklyn, Brooklyn Boy is about looking back at what you've left.

PLAYBILL.COM: Maybe there's a middle-aged Margulies "Brooklyn trilogy" to be completed that would include Sight Unseen and Brooklyn Boy.
DM: I don't know. The next play for me is a commission for South Coast Rep and it's intended for family audiences, so it's going to be a departure for me. It's not an adaptation of a children's work — I'm creating it. When I say "children's," it’s really a play that families of different generations can see. As the father of a 12-year-old that's something I would love to create: Something that is universal. I guess I'm aiming high: I would love to do my Our Town, which is certainly a play that crosses generations, crosses cultures.

PLAYBILL.COM: At core, are you a creature of theatre?
DM: I've been able to maintain a foothold in the theatre, apparently, and I have had to subsidize my playwriting through screenplay writing. I've been doing that for a long time now. Even though it's wonderful to report that my plays are produced around the world, I still need to subsidize my income. As well regarded as my plays have been in recent years, it's not an annuity.

PLAYBILL.COM: It's a trickle of copper?
DM: Even the plays that did produce more than a trickle are reduced to a trickle after about five years. Thankfully, there seems to be a new wave of interest in The Loman Family Picnic and Sight Unseen, in addition to Dinner With Friends and Collected Stories, which have been sort of my staples. It's very gratifying.

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