Liar Liar

For a playwright so concerned with stories, Donald Margulies doesn't really write great ones. His plays are driven by character and dialogue rather than plot. What's going on inside the heads of his characters is far more important than what's happening next.

Which is merely one reason why Shipwrecked! An Entertainment—The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As told by himself), Margulies' fourth world premiere at South Coast Repertory, is such a surprise. Gone are the highly educated, complicated and articulate East Coasters struggling with fame, legacy, relationships and where to find good risotto.

Instead, on the dinner menu is baked snake, and our milieu is a theater in late 19th-century Victorian London. Onstage, a colorful raconteur recounts a tale of adventure and survival filled with fantastic exploits—all of which, he claims, happened to him. Most of the briskly moving 90-minute play is his humorous, suspense-drenched yarn of surviving shipwrecks, sea monsters, a deserted island and tribal warfare in the South Pacific. It's old-fashioned melodrama, a penny dreadful come to life onstage, a deliriously populist entertainment that couldn't feel any more different from the high-end, well-heeled plays Margulies is most known for.

And none of it really matters. For when the twist comes, we discover Margulies' real story is less about the events we've heard described than with the person doing the describing.

And that makes Shipwrecked!—as fun, goofy, contrived and implausible as it may seem—as distinctly Margulies as his Pulitzer Prize-winning Dinner With Friends and his arguable masterwork, 1996's Collected Stories. Each is about how the stories we tell ourselves, as well as one another, can serve as everything from defensive shields to battering rams.

In Dinner With Friends, those stories are the lies and secrets used to prop up a crumbling relationship; in Collected Stories, they're “real” memories mercenarily turned into fiction. In Shipwrecked! our character doesn't exist without his stories. They are his life's blood, providing form and content to his world. Stripped of them, his existence is meaningless.

The story in Shipwrecked!—and whether it's inspired by experience, mental illness, greed, or something entirely different—is made enjoyable by Margulies' great ear for language, director Bart De Lorenozo's consciously threadbare production and, most of all, Gregory Itzen's magnificent portrayal as de Rougemont. A great stage and screen actor (he's probably best known for his Emmy-nominated turn as the apparently bumbling President Charles Logan on 24),Itzenattacks his role with flamboyance, flair and heart-aching sympathy.

Even as stuffy academics and muckraking journalists start raising serious questions about the authenticity of his story, Itzen's de Rougemont (based on a real person) remains wholly likeable. That makes Margulies' ultimate ruling in favor of artistic inspiration over objective, literal fact easier to swallow—even if, in other circumstances, we'd spit it back up.

Fictions can poison a bed, derail a supposedly nonfiction memoir on Oprah, and even cripple presidential administrations. But in art, Margulies leaves us pondering, fictions are all that matter. Without them, we'd have no stories to tell—or at least none worth hearing.

Shipwrecked! An Entertainmentat South Coast Repertory, Julianne Argyros stage, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555; Tues.-Fri., 7:45 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 N 7:45 p.m. Through Oct. 14. $20-$62.

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