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THEATER

Nothing but the Human Truth

If you think you recognize yourself in playwright Donald Margulies' dissections of relationships--well, that's exactly the point.

October 01, 2000|PATRICK PACHECO | Patrick Pacheco is a regular contributor to Calendar

During intermission at a preview of Donald Margulies' "Dinner With Friends" shortly before it opened at the Variety Arts Theatre in Manhattan last November, the playwright witnessed a man walking out of his show. As he strolled up the aisle, the well-dressed theatergoer told his companions, "Man, this is too close to home, I'll catch up with you later."

Should the scene repeat itself when the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about marital discord and its impact on two couples opens Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse, Margulies says that he won't be entirely displeased.

"I really don't want to send people flying at intermission," says the 46-year-old playwright. "But when I overheard what this guy had to say--that this situation was so recognizable to him--then I figured I'd done my job well. I didn't relish losing him, but I was impressed with his depth of reaction: not 'I hate this,' but 'I can't bear this.' "

Nonetheless, that guy is in the minority. Nearly a year after it opened, under the direction of Daniel Sullivan (who is repeating his duties at the Geffen), "Dinner With Friends" is still drawing capacity audiences at the Variety Arts. The 2000 Pulitzer for drama didn't hurt. But the play--which premiered in Louisville in 1998 and ran at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa later that year--has also demonstrated an international appeal, with a nine-month run in Paris and successful productions in Japan, where it is still running.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 4, 2000 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Network movie--Playwright Donald Margulies' adaptation of "A Man in Full" is being made into a miniseries for NBC. The network was incorrect in a story in Sunday's Calendar. The name of Margulies' son also was incorrect. His name is Miles.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 8, 2000 Home Edition Calendar Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Network movie--Playwright Donald Margulies' adaptation of "A Man in Full" is being made into a miniseries for NBC. The network was incorrect in a story in the Oct. 1 Sunday Calendar. The name of Margulies' son also was incorrect. His name is Miles.

To be sure, Margulies has never shied from taking a scalpel to the human condition and telling some ugly truths, as he has in such acclaimed works as his two breakthrough successes: "Sight Unseen," the 1992 drama about a visual artist challenged to defend his ideals, and 1995's "Collected Stories," about betrayal and ambition in the literary world. But "Dinner With Friends," even more than those plays, makes bitter observations about the impossibility of human relationships even more palatable than those other plays.

After all, the drama unfolds largely in the Connecticut home (and Martha's Vineyard beach house) of Gabe and Karen, a pair of international food writers who, like their friends Tom and Beth, are encumbered with mortgages, children, carpools, two-car garages and a suburban, upper-middle-class marriage.

Heretofore, there have been few difficulties in the lives they've shared together since Gabe and Karen introduced Tom to Beth that haven't been smoothed over with a sumptuous lemon almond polenta cake or grilled lamb and pumpkin risotto. But when the philandering Tom and Beth (played by Kevin Kilner and Dana Delany) suddenly decide to end their 12-year-marriage, the aftershocks are felt in the well-appointed kitchen--and bedroom--of Gabe and Karen (played by Daniel Stern and Rita Wilson).

Vincent Canby, writing in the New York Times, praised "Dinner With Friends" as "something you rarely find these days: a comedy about heterosexual relationships that is neither embarrassed by nor smug about its liberal upper-middle-class values. It is sober, wise and sometimes extremely funny."

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Margulies' biggest commercial success comes after a long tenure in the world of nonprofit off-Broadway and regional theaters that began when Joseph Papp produced his 1984 play, "Found a Peanut," about children (played by adults) discovering a cache of money.

Further exploring the themes of dislocation and loss in such plays as "The Loman Family Picnic," a satire of domestic dysfunction, and "The Model Apartment," about the Holocaust, Margulies gained the reputation as an eclectic, thoughtful, even daring playwright.

In 1994, there was a disastrous excursion to Broadway when his "What's Wrong With This Picture?," starring Faith Prince as a Jewish mother who comes back from the grave, was clobbered by the critics. "It was a mistake that snowballed into a careening, out-of-control nightmare," he now says of the experience that sent him into a clinical depression. "It still stings."

Margulies has said that "Dinner With Friends" is his most "autobiographical work." But unlike "The Loman Family Picnic," which was a backward glance at his Brooklyn Jewish upbringing, and "Picture," which was an attempt to come to terms with his mother's sudden death a decade earlier, the playwright says that "Dinner" was inspired by his present life as a husband of 20 years, to Lynn Street, a geriatrician, and father to Daniel, his 8-year-old son. They live in New Haven, Conn., where Margulies moonlights as a professor at the Yale School of Drama.

"Being in my 40s, married with child, I began to take stock, to look at the relationships around us," says Margulies, noting that the characters in his play are "composites" of people he's known for a number of years.

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