I was Miss America. Bess Myerson was Eva Braun,” coos an obese, schizophrenic, unstoppable force of nature named Debby, describing a dream to her Holocaust-survivor mother Lola. “What a tour de force for Bess! She was positively adorable. We played Bingo together, me and Bess. We won prizes. She won the coveted Oscar and I won the most adorable handbag made of Jewish hair.”
Welcome to the world of Donald Margulies, where even the days are dream-ravaged and humor is laced with the razor-edge of pain. Best known for his 1991 play Sight Unseen (the fourth most-produced play among the nation’s resident theatres in 1993-94, and coming soon to a theatre near you), Margulies has for the past 10 years been quietly staking out a claim as a preeminent chronicler of the Holocaust-shadowed lives of American Jews. Debby’s fantasy (“The last time I visited the concentration camp, they turned it into a bungalow colony,” she begins) isn’t a sick joke, although it may seem so out of the dramatic context and pain-inflicted ethos of The Model Apartment. Margulies is a profoundly disturbing writer, but the world of which he writes is profoundly disturbed.Order now
Dead relatives keep showing up
Beginning in 1984 with Found a Peanut, in which adult actors playing children enact the small victories and immense cruelties of childhood, the 40-year-old writer has crafted a series of plays that place family dramas securely in the resonant grasp of history. Joseph Papp, who produced Found a Peanut at the New York Shakespeare Festival, called it one of the most powerful plays about anti-Semitism he’d ever read. In The Model Apartment and The Loman Family Picnic, long-dead relatives, victims of the Holocaust, make appearances. (“Uncle Izzy! Go into the smorgasbord! You must be starving!” gushes proud Doris in The Loman Family Picnic. “Boy, they’re really coming out for Stewie’s bar mitzvah!”)
Margulies’s plays aren’t only about what it means to be Jewish. In many ways, his families are Every families, populated with vaguely disaffected or rebellious children and frustrated, embittered adults. But the universal appeal of the work is expressed through historical and cultural references that give the pathosladen humor its edge.
The success of Sight Unseen, which was commissioned and first produced by California’s South Coast Repertory in 1991 and enjoyed an eight-month run in New York under the auspices of the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1992, surprised even its author. “It’s perhaps the first time I’d written a play with a hook,” he says. “The art-world aspect of the play really seemed to connect with the media, and I think helped promote the play, but it also gave people the wrong impression. There was a perception of it being a very cerebral play about art, whereas I see it as a play about lost love and lost values, ways of seeing and many other themes.”
A comparatively gentle play in the Margulies canon, Sight Unseen channels its more obviously Jewish themes (interfaith romance, the Holocaust) through the shifting, tenuous relationship between a successful artist and his former lover. If the characters in the playwright’s earlier plays are haunted by the past, Jonathan and Patricia are, to a far greater extent, simply haunted by their own pasts. Margulies reflects this with a time-jumping structure that interlaces past and present, offering a refracted, collagist point of view.
The art metaphor is one that Margulies, who was a visual artist before turning to playwriting, offers about his own work. “I still do collage, it’s one of the last remnants of my art school years,” he explains. “I don’t really deal with pragmatic concerns like whose play is this, whose point of view is this. I’ve ceased to care about that stuff. Some people are upset by that, but I think it makes for an exciting experience, where you’re not quite sure, and you decipher it as you see fit.”
Directly or indirectly, Margulies has employed this collagist technique throughout his career. Styles vary widely from scene to scene, even within scenes. Absurdist leaps frame each day’s march toward another day that is just the same, only worse. Linking everything together are heightened visual images, tangible metaphors for the unspoken yearnings of the characters. What’s Wrong with This Picture?, first produced at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1985, begins with a family sitting shiva for Shirley, their dead matriarch. Artie, the son, puts on his mother’s dress in an attempt to communicate with his inconsolable father. (“She wore this to your bar mitzvah, Artie… we’re not talking schmatte here. She danced in this dress. She shook and shimmered in it. She sweated in this dress. This dress was your mother, Artie.”) Their mourning is interrupted when Shirley returns to clean house for her husband and son. What do you do when you get a second chance? Picture is about grief and healing, but Shirley’s return offers no easy balm.
The Loman Family Picnic, which debuted at MTC in 1988 and recently enjoyed a superlative remounting there, is perhaps Margulies’s most audacious play. Like much of the author’s work, it’s set in 1960s Brooklyn and is about a desperately unhappy family. The mother, Doris, cuts up her wedding dress to make a Bride of Frankenstein Halloween costume. The youngest son is writing a musical comedy version of Death of a Salesman: “Dad’s a little weird/He’s in a daze/Could it be he’s going nuts?/Or is it just a phase?”
“Once I decided to embrace the fact that I was not the first to write a play about a downtrodden salesman in Brooklyn with two sons, but rather that what Miller did contributed to the culture in which my family grew–that was tremendously liberating and artistically very exciting to me,” Margulies says of the work, which began as a more overtly autobiographical play and evolved into a brazenly funny meditation on despair.
One of the keynotes of Margulies’s work is his use of theatrical fantasy to give voice to otherwise inarticulate characters, and The Loman Family Picnic contains scenes of literally unutterable sadness. Doris and her husband, Herbie, share their fantasies of each other’s deaths. There are three false endings (synthetic, in which Doris walks out; melodramatic, in which she jumps off the roof; and hackneyed, in which she runs into Herbie’s arms) before the play finally ends, as it must and as it began, with Doris and Herbie in silence.
Margulies tells me about a production in which an unnamed name actress wanted him to switch the order of the endings, so the play could finish on an upbeat note. She just didn’t get it. The men in Margulies’s plays tend toward defeat and sadness, swallowing their rage until it pours forth in anger and desperation. The women are the life forces, restless and vital. When they cling to their dreams, it’s in the hope of some future good–something bigger and better than the lives in which they’ve been trapped. Robin Bartlett, Madeline Kahn, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Florence Stanley and Chloe Webb have premiered roles in Margulies’s plays–all are actresses who can make you cry with laughter and look damn sexy doing it. They play women who are heart-wrenchingly vulnerable, but with spines of steel.
Thanks in no small part to the success of Sight Unseen, The Loman Family Picnic and the rest of Margulies’s works are having renewed on-stage lives. Next season, New York’s Primary Stages will produce The Model Apartment–only the second production of the play anywhere since its premiere at the Los Angeles Theatre Center in 1988.
When he’s not at work on a new script, Margulies is writing a movie for Robin Williams based on the autobiography of John Callahan, the politically incorrect quadriplegic cartoonist. But having a chance to revisit The Model Apartment–which juxtaposes Auschwitz and Miami, and uses the Holocaust as a metaphor for madness and moral responsibility–is especially gratifying.