The Dames of Don

Special Features   The Dames of Don Broadway welcomes Laura Linney and Linda Lavin, who play strong women created by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies.
Laura Linney and Linda Lavin
Laura Linney and Linda Lavin Photo by Andrew Eccles (Linney)

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Something old, something new, something borrowed — and everything Margulies. That will be Manhattan Theatre Club's bill of fare at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre for the first half of 2010. Laura Linney and Linda Lavin are the back-to-back leading ladies, each playing a flinty female in otherwise-unrelated Donald Margulies plays.

Time Stands Still, the new Margulies, lifted off first, presenting Linney as a fiercely committed photojournalist who, sidelined by a war injury, tries to get her personal-versus-professional priorities straight. Collected Stories, Margulies' 1996 Pulitzer runner-up, follows on its heels in April, with Lavin as a crusty, reclusive novelist whose personal history becomes best-selling fodder for a student she trusts and mentors.

Uncommon women, all — and a feast for any self-respecting actress to perform.

"A lot of it is just great writing and a fantastic context in which to work," says Linney. "It's not just the character. It's the whole world in which it's set and the people in it. She's one small part of this fantastic world that Donald has created." Margulies' advance work on the world of Time Stands Still was an unproduced screenplay he did on the legendary Robert Capa about 15 years ago. "That's where my fascination with photojournalists came from," he says.

"With Donald's stuff, it's layer upon layer upon layer," Linney notes. "There's so much to tap into — such a lot of room in this work. You're so supported by the structure of the piece. You're part of a chorus, really. All his plays — there's no one lead. They're ensemble pieces. You feel like you're part of a quartet here."

The three-ply support system for Linney's character's recovery includes her lover of nine years, a war correspondent who provides the words for her pictures (Brian d'Arcy James); her cynical editor (Eric Bogosian); and the latter's much-younger girlfriend (Alicia Silverstone), who comes in the invisible protective coating of a bimbo but isn't one.

Fluff-against-grit gives Margulies the traction he wants. "Bringing disparate people together is part of the fun," he admits. "I do love contrast, and I like to be surprised by things that emerge from characters from whom we might not expect surprises."

Collected Stories is a two-hander, again with contrasting females — something of a literary "All About Eve": Ruth Steiner (Lavin), an established short-story writer, is flung back into the public spotlight because of a piece of published "fiction" she relayed in confidence to a seemingly adoring student, Lisa Morrison (Sarah Paulson). Is it homage, or is it petty theft? Margulies will never tell. "No, I don't weigh in on this," he insists. "It's really up to audiences to discuss and debate."

But he has left enough breadcrumbs for Lavin to have herself a feast. "I just love the way Donald Margulies writes," she declares. "He writes wonderful women." She should know. After all, this is the fourth time she has played Ruth, and she has directed two other Margulies women (in his Pulitzer Prize–winning Dinner With Friends) for her Red Barn Studio Theatre in Wilmington, NC. "When he writes, he writes with such passion. He writes poetically, but he also writes pragmatically. His dialogue is very realistic, very emotional and very educated."

Playwright Donald Margulies
photo by Ethan Hill

The inspiration for Collected Stories came from a man, Stephen Spender, who brought a case of plagiarism against a student. "What it inspired Donald to do was to look at the life of a writer and examine what happens when you, if you're not a trusting person, finally do trust someone with your story, and they go off and write your story as their first novel. If they take elements of your story and disguise it, it's still your story and not theirs. What he's looking at is, 'Whose life is it anyway?' How much are you allowed to take someone else's story and take liberties and say it's your story? My experience is that the audience is split down the middle." Linney qualifies as a Margulies muse on the basis of three productions and two plays. She did Sight Unseen, his other Pulitzer contender, twice, playing both female roles — an arts interviewer Off-Broadway, and the wronged heroine in its Broadway revival. "That first production was such a very special time in my life," she says. "I was right out of school. I had worked before that, but it was the first part I had originated. I was sublimely happy, and I learned so much. Then to go back to it 12 years later — what a great opportunity! This is what, hopefully, actresses get to do: go from ingénue to character actress. They get to grow up in the theatre."

And where does Margulies find his inspiration for such strong, compelling women? He finds it at home — with his wife of 30 years, Lynn Street, a general internist in New Haven, where he teaches playwriting at Yale.

"Mostly," he concedes, "it's actresses who comment on the roles I write for women. I've always been interested in smart, complicated women. I'm married to one.

"My wife never ceases to challenge and move me. It's funny — people are always saying to me, 'You know, your women are so complex.' And I say, 'Yes, she is.'"

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