In a confrontational scene in Donald Margulies' "Sight Unseen," the protagonist storms out of an interview with a German journalist. It's a scene that makes even a staunch reporter quake before calling the playwright for an interview.
"It definitely puts interviewers off guard," a cheerful-sounding Margulies acknowledges from his home in New Haven, Conn. "Interviewers don't know what they're going to encounter when they call me."
Margulies, 39, may not be a household name, but he's getting a lot of attention these days -- especially in this part of the country. "The Loman Family Picnic," his 1989 play about a Brooklyn Jewish family preparing for its older son's bar mitzvah, opens at Center Stage on Wednesday. And "Sight Unseen" (1991), about a superstar modern American artist, concludes a three-week run at Olney Theatre today.
The subject matter of these shows says a lot about the playwright -- a trained visual artist whose work frequently deals with the theme of family -- and about his approach to writing.
"I still do collage work, which in many ways is akin to playwriting, where you're really dealing with found pieces, and you're putting them together to create a new composition," he says. "In many ways for me, playwriting is the process of taking things I have observed and putting them together in new compositions."
He describes the composition of "Sight Unseen" as cubist. "What I do is I take essentially three different time frames -- namely the present, the immediate future and the past -- and isolate certain incidents surrounding the protagonist that take place in those time frames. Instead of telling it in a linear way, it's refracted as a still life is in a cubist painting."
In the play, an artist named Jonathan Waxman -- who is so successful his paintings are bought "sight unseen" -- goes to England for a retrospective of his work. While there, he visits a former girlfriend and model in an attempt to regain the inspiration he felt at the start of his career. The "refraction," as Margulies calls it, occurs because the scenes are presented out of chronological order. The final scene, for example, is the one in which the artist and model first met.
In contrast, the action in "The Loman Family Picnic" takes place chronologically, although the play includes such non-naturalistic elements as appearances by the character of a long-dead aunt and the presentation of four alternative endings. The title comes from the fact that the family's younger son is studying "Death of a Salesman" in school. Instead of a conventional book report, he writes a musical comedy adaptation titled "Willy!" featuring a production number called "The Loman Family Picnic."
"If 'Sight Unseen' is like a cubist painting, then I think 'Loman' is more collagist," Margulies says. "I do play around with style, certainly. It mixes musical comedy with drama. My attempt in 'The Loman Family Picnic' was to do my own kind of redefinition of the American family play."
Set in the 1960s, "The Loman Family Picnic" bears similarities to the playwright's background. He also comes from Brooklyn and, like the character writing "Willy!" is also the younger of two sons of a salesman. "So much of that play is really about understanding my parents' motivations at a particularly fraught time from a child's standpoint, having stored up the observations I had and trying to piece it together as a kind of mystery I'm trying to solve," he acknowledges.
Like his alter ego in the play, Margulies first read Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" in grammar school. The script made a deep impression. As he wrote in a Father's Day article in the New York Times two years ago: "I was 11 years old when I read 'Death of a Salesman,' and I remember the guilt and shame I felt for recognizing in the Lomans truths about my own family. . . . But the play's uncanny reflection of my life and worst fears also exhilarated me and made me feel less alone."
At about the same time in his childhood, Margulies' family began taking theatergoing vacations, staying in a Manhattan hotel and attending Broadway shows. These experiences helped kindle Margulies' love of theater, but he expected art to be his career when he won a partial scholarship to New York's Pratt Institute.
He continued to expect that after he transferred to the State University of New York at Purchase and worked up the nerve to knock on the door of then-Village Voice critic Julius Novick, a professor of drama studies.
"He was one of the first people whose work had ever been in print whom I'd met," Margulies recalls. "I said, 'I was wondering if you'd consider sponsoring me in a playwriting tutorial.' He said, 'Have you ever written a play before?' I said no, and he said, 'All right. I'll sponsor you.' And it was as if someone had turned on a light. It was very important, and then when he liked what I wrote, that was even more monumental."
Novick, now a critic for Newsday, has strong memories of the script that came out of that tutorial. It was called "A Little Something."
"It was a play about a Jewish family in Brooklyn," Novick recalls. "It came from the same well of memory where the other plays come from. Actually, what I see is a kind of paradox, the way all of his plays seem to come from that same well of childhood memories, and yet how he doesn't repeat himself; how he is able to take off from there in varying directions in terms of both form and of subject matter."
Novick also remembers the quality of Margulies' first playwriting attempt. "It was not one of those cases where somewhere in this chaos you could discern sparks of talent. It was good; you can tell," he says. "Already the thing had some structural integrity and not just some bits of wonderful dialogue, and it was clear that he was a playwright indeed."
By the time Margulies graduated from SUNY-Purchase with a degree in visual arts in 1977, he was determined to be a writer. "The prospect of being an artist in the 'real world' felt less and less attractive to me. I didn't feel I was a visionary artist who could distinguish himself," he says.
His art degree came in handy, however. For three years he supported his playwriting efforts by working as a graphic artist in the publishing business. Then in 1980 Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller gave him his first job as a writer, writing sketches for a movie preview show they did on HBO.
A year later, New York's Jewish Repertory Theater staged "Gifted Children," Margulies' first full-length produced play. ("Sight Unseen" is his seventh or eighth -- depending on how he's counting -- out of approximately 20 total scripts, most of which are one-acts.)
Margulies moved to New Haven in 1990 when his wife, Dr. Lynn Street, accepted a fellowship at Yale University. Since then, she's become an internist at a New Haven clinic, and he's a visiting lecturer at the Yale School of Drama.
He clearly relishes his quiet New Haven family life, which includes a son named Miles, who will be 2 years old next month, a standard poodle named Beckett, and two cats, Little Earl and the Guy. However, he hasn't been completely immune to the allure of Hollywood -- or at least the allure of the movies. (His brief experience working on a TV sitcom in 1988 threw him into what he calls "a terrible Kafka-esque funk.")
He recently completed three screenplays: an adaptation of the autobiography of John Callahan, a quadriplegic cartoonist, for Robin Williams; a screenplay based on the life of war photographer Robert Capa for Oliver Stone; and a screen version of "Sight Unseen" for the film division of HBO.
If any script is apt to make him a household name, it's probably "Sight Unseen," which, he points out, is one of the most produced new American plays in regional theaters this season. He's already working on his next play -- a commission for South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, Calif., where "Sight Unseen" debuted. He won't say anything about the new work at this point except that, in collage terms, he's "piecing it together."
As to making actual collages, he says, "I turn to it whenever I hit a dry phase in my writing. It provides an outlet."
Lately, however, there don't seem to have been many dry spells. "It is a good year in terms of my plays being produced and recognized and rediscovered, and that's wonderful," Margulies says. "It's nice that it's happening during my lifetime."
What: "The Loman Family Picnic"
Where: Center Stage, Head Theater, 700 N. Calvert St.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 7:30 p.m. most Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. most Saturdays and Sundays. Through May 8. (Sign-interpreted performance at 2 p.m. April 23; audio-described performance at 2 p.m. May 1)
Call: (410) 332-0033; TDD: (410) 332-4240
Today is the last chance to see:
What: "Sight Unseen"
Where: Olney Theatre, 2001 Route 108, Olney
When: 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. today. (Audio-described performance at 2:30 p.m.)
Call: (301) 924-3400; TDD: (301) 924-2739