PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Donald Margulies

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Donald Margulies Donald Margulies is known for writing naturalistic plays about the tricky waters of human relations, the responsibilities of family and the role of art in life.
Donald Margulies
Donald Margulies Photo by Aubrey Reuben

He is not known for writing shows with 19th-century-melodrama-by-way-of-Tony-Kushner titles like Shipwrecked! An Entertainment — The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told by Himself). But that is indeed the name of his latest work, due to begin performances Sept. 23 at South Coast Rep's Julianne Argyros Stage. The premiere, starring Gregory Itzin, known for his recent work on television's "24," tells the bizarre story of a once-infamous fraud who led Victorian England by the nose for a few months in 1898 with wild tales of his strange life. (Among his claims: he could ride a tortoise, and he had seen flying wombats.) Margulies, who won his Pulitzer Prize for Dinner with Friends, made the case to Playbill.com that Shipwrecked! is not so different from, say, Brooklyn Boy, after all.

Playbill.com: I don't mean to pigeonhole you, but Shipwrecked! An Entertainment — The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told by Himself) doesn't sound like a Donald Margulies play.
Donald Margulies: (Laughs) You know, I somehow imagined a question would arise like that. That may be true, but thematically it's not that far from things I have dealt with most of my career. It began as a commission from South Coast Rep's Theatre for Young Audiences series. But the play evolved into something more challenging and sophisticated and really not for the target audience they had in mind. So, it became "mainstaged." Or, actually, in this case, it will be on their second stage, the Argyros Stage. The themes of it are consistent with those of Collected Stories, Sight Unseen and Brooklyn Boy. Everything I've written has dealt with loss and authenticity. Those kind of issues are all part of this story. The style of the show is somewhat different. I made a challenge for myself for this to be as spare as possible. There's no scenery and it's for three actors, one who will play the lead. My objective was to write something that was purely theatrical.

Playbill.com: How did you ever learn about the strange tale of Louis de Rougemont?
DM: Some years ago, I was writing a movie about a Holocaust survivor pretender, a true story. In the course of my research, a friend of mine gave me a book called "Imposters" and the first chapter of this book is about Louis de Rougemont. Years later, I reflected on that story when I became very interested in the James Frey "A Million Little Pieces" controversy. I was trying to figure out if there was a way I could write about that without it being about James Frey. Lo and behold, I remembered the story of Louis, which paralleled James Frey pretty uncannily. Louis' story is he claimed to have been shipwrecked in the South Seas and lived among aboriginal cannibals for 30 years. Then he came back to Victorian England and told his story and became a huge media star. And then he was debunked. I thought, here's an opportunity to write a story about the power of storytelling and the allure of celebrity and the public's need to believe in stories.

Playbill.com: What's the format? Does Louis address the audience?
DM: Yes. It's a very presentational piece. Louis is telling us his story. It opens up with him addressing us and then goes to his reenacting it with the help of these two players. Louis is on stage every single minute of the 90 minutes.

Playbill.com: Are there plans to do the play in New York?
DM: I hope there will be. There's going to be a separate production at Long Wharf in February-March. Playbill.com: Are you working on any other plays?
DM: I'm working on a play right now that is a commission from the Geffen Playhouse and that will have its premiere in Los Angeles. That's called The Elephant in the Room. It's a drama. It's probably more like that kind of terrain that I have been in before. The protagonist is a photo-journalist who has been injured in a place like Iraq and is home. It's a way to write about what's going on [in Iraq] without hitting us over the head, I hope. The play is really about the homefront drama. But it does have things that I have written about, such as the role of the artist in society.

Playbill.com: Yes, you often make artists you protagonists.
DM: I guess I do.

Playbill.com: You had the good fortune to have one of your earlier plays, Sight Unseen, revived on Broadway. It seems major revivals of plays are happening more quickly after the original production than used to be the case. Are producers looking at some of your other earlier plays?
DM: They have. I've been talking to a couple of directors, who will at this point remain nameless, who are interested in two of my earlier plays which I hope will have a life in New York in the next five years or so.

Playbill.com: A lot of people think The Model Apartment deserves a bigger production.
DM: Well, thank you. That is actually one of the ones that I am hoping has a new life. It had a very short run initially in New York.

Playbill.com: Are you working in other media right now?
DM: Yeah. I have a movie I've written for Mike Myers. I've written something called "Moon." It's the Keith Moon [the drummer of the English rock band The Who] story. Mike hired me really on the strength of Brooklyn Boy. He saw it; we met; he was determined to find something for us to do together and it became the Keith Moon project. It's a good thing I'm a rock 'n' roll fan.

Playbill.com: Are you? Particularly The Who?
DM: Well, significantly The Who. That's my generation, man.

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