"So what's it like getting a Pulitzer?"
At 53, playwright Donald Margulies has been writing for more than 30 years and been interviewed more times than he can count, so the occasional gee-whiz dumb-ass question from a fan boy seems to only marginally affect him.
He squints his eyes and shoots me a look that says he's listening closely . . . but that he's not entirely certain I even know how gee-whiz dumb-ass the question is I just asked. During an hour-long interview, he squinted a lot but was relaxed, easygoing and fluent on a variety of topics: the New York theater grind, James Frey, theater critic Frank Rich, the ambiguities of truth and his new play Shipwrecked! An Entertainment: The Amazing Adventures of Louis De Rougemont (As Told By Himself), opening Friday at South Coast Repertory.
Margulies has been on the shortlist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama three times (winning once, for Dinner With Friends in 2000), won a handful of Obies, received the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature in 2005, written 16 stage plays (by his own estimation), as well as numerous unproduced screenplays, and is currently teaching playwriting at Yale. "We read plays that I love because I feel that the only way I can teach writing is to instruct my students in the art of identifying inspiration," he says. "I can point at these plays and say these inspire me, and hopefully get them excited."
Margulies was a graphic designer before he turned his attention to writing. "I didn't take my writing very seriously because my abilities in visual arts were good enough to have garnered me a certain amount of attention and scholarships," he says. "Why I thought I would possibly succeed as a playwright completely escapes me."
His 1982 New York debut, Luna Park, was also his first commission ($100). An adaptation of the Delmore Schwartz short story "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities," the play was written for and performed at the off-off-Broadway Jewish Repertory Theater. Programmed opposite Schwartz's obscure verse play Shenandoah, the work of the Jewish poet (who was also a mentor to musician Lou Reed and was featured in several of Reed's songs) became an obsession of Margulies, playing a prominent part in his play Collected Stories.
In 1984, theater impresario Joe Papp produced Margulies' Found a Peanut at the off-Broadway Public Theatre, convinced it would jump-start his career. "The reviews were wonderful, except Frank Rich gave me a very middling review, which was the difference between an extended run and playing out our limited engagement," Margulies says. "If a tree falls in the forest and The New York Times isn't there to hear it, there's no sound."
Jerry Patch, SCR's dramaturg at the time, offered him a commission. The world premiere of Sight Unseen received glowing reviews and was produced in New York, "where it ran for most of '92," Margulies recalls, "because Frank Rich liked it."
Collected Stories (1996) was SCR's second commission, and it was also a Pulitzer finalist. God of Vengeance was read at the Pacific Playwrights Festival in 1999; Dinner With Friends had its West Coast premiere at SCR; and his third SCR commission, Brooklyn Boy, followed in 2004.
Next was Shipwrecked! Writing a screenplay for producer Scott Rudin about a Holocaust pretender, Margulies became fascinated by the fallout over author James Frey's addiction-recovery memoir A Million Little Pieces. The intense reaction to the revelation that Frey lied about his story got him wondering if the millions of people who had been inspired—and helped—by the book were now repudiating their experiences. "We, as a people, are very invested in true stories, I think, because it makes us all feel that they could happen to us. If they didn't really happen, then maybe it couldn't happen to us," he says. "People don't like to feel as if they been taken, suckered or seduced into believing something. I think it makes them feel weak."
Doing research, he picked up the book Imposters by British scholar Sarah Burton and read a chapter on the little-known Louis De Rougemont, a publishing sensation in Victorian England. The serialization of his adventurous life in The World Wide Magazine—with its tales of pearl-diving, attacks by Malay warriors, a giant octopus, hurricanes, shipwrecks on desert islands, and his adoption by natives who worshipped him as a god—was a huge, controversial best-seller. Reading about this cultural phenomenon gave Margulies the hook for Shipwrecked! "I saw parallels in Louis' story, being representative of our celebrity-driven culture," Margulies says. "It [also] gave me an opportunity to write a play about storytelling."
The script is funny, refreshingly exuberant and a wildly theatrical read, with enough twists and turns that you never know where it's going. Its use of title cards, puppetry and three actors playing dozens of roles (with just a small change of costume to suggest a new character) is spectacle in no-budget storefront-theater style, but with enough of SCR's discretionary income so that it looks cheap only when it's supposed to.
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"I have no stomach for cuteness, [or] the certain amount of pandering that goes with it. There's no pandering at all with this. We're pretty diligent about taking out things that might appear to be that," says Margulies. "The spareness of it was a way to work against the spectacle—to be as resourceful as possible and leave as much room as possible for the imagination. Let's face it: It's a very old story. It's the essence of the picaresque, the young man who leaves home to seek adventure, and he encounters all these people and calamities and survives them. It's part of our oral tradition."
So what was it like getting a Pulitzer?
"It was delightful," Margulies says.
SHIPWRECKED! AN ENTERTAINMENT: THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF LOUIS DE ROUGEMONT (AS TOLD BY HIMSELF) AT SOUTH COAST REPERTORY (JULIANNE ARGYROS STAGE), 655 TOWN CENTER DR., COSTA MESA, (714) 708-5555; WWW.SCR.ORG. OPENS FRI. TUES.-FRI., 7:45 P.M.; SAT.-SUN., 2 & 7:45 P.M. THROUGH OCT. 14. $20-$62.