irector David Emmes, left, and playwright Donald Margulies. (Bob Chamberlin, Los Angeles…)
They are the kind of moments that, when we brush against them accidentally, make us want to look away: An eager young student, confronting a condescending mentor. An estranged husband, stopping by to see his wife and -- after pleasantries -- browbeating her over what she's telling their friends. Two ex-lovers, now married to other people, reconnecting uncomfortably and circling like tigers. The characters move from small talk to awkward terseness to full-on combat in a disturbingly life-like way.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, March 25, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 2 inches; 91 words Type of Material: Correction
Donald Margulies: In the Arts & Books section elsewhere in this edition, an article about playwright Donald Margulies' relationship with South Coast Repertory says that the Costa Mesa theater has offered world premieres of four of his most important plays, including "Dinner With Friends," winner of the 2000 Pulitzer Prize. It should say that the theater has offered world premieres of four of his most important plays and did crucial work on "Dinner With Friends," winner of the 2000 Pulitzer Prize. The error was detected after the section went to press.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, April 01, 2012 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 2 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 66 words Type of Material: Correction
Donald Margulies: A March 25 article about playwright Donald Margulies' relationship with South Coast Repertory said the Costa Mesa theater has offered world premieres of four of his most important plays, including "Dinner With Friends," winner of the 2000 Pulitzer Prize. It should have said the theater has offered world premieres of four of his most important plays and did crucial work on "Dinner With Friends."
Donald Margulies, the playwright who created these characters and their conflicts, doesn't really take sides. He just hopes to keep the audience watching, neither turning away nor committing to a firm judgment.
"I don't want the audience writing off anybody they see onstage," says Margulies, 57, strolling through the Orange County Museum of Art show of Richard Diebenkorn paintings. "I think they're always on somebody's side, but their allegiances shift. I think that kind of ping-pong exists in real argument."
Though Margulies' characters bump against each other in unsettling ways -- there's an agenda behind almost every encounter, like Pinter without the working-class menace -- it's a relief to see that the writer himself is unguarded and seemingly uncalculating.
Margulies' "Sight Unseen," which recently opened in a revival at South Coast Repertory, the company that commissioned it more than two decades ago, is ripe with conflict.
Angst and interpersonal strain are recurring characters in the plays of Donald Margulies, but the playwright's most productive artistic home has been more serene: The Costa Mesa theater has offered world premieres of four of his most important plays, including "Dinner With Friends," winner of the 2000 Pulitzer Prize. At South Coast Rep, Margulies says, "The psychological climate is so much lighter than the world of New York theater."
His protagonists don't always have such untroubled homecomings. In "Sight Unseen," the key tension is in the heart of the play's main character, Jonathan Waxman, a 40-ish painter visiting an old girlfriend who also served as his first muse.
To David Emmes, the play's producing artistic director the first time around and now director for the revival, it's about someone who has become more successful than he ever thought possible. "And you wonder, somewhere along the way, 'Have I lost it?' " says the mellow, professorial company co-founder. "'Have I gotten so caught up in the mill that I've lost my artistic fire?' "
A Brooklyn native now living near Yale University, where he teaches, Margulies is a long way from home today. "I'm very excited right now," he confides in a whisper, walking into one of the museum's galleries of paintings by Diebenkorn, whose work he discovered as an art student.
With his black jeans, corduroy jacket and retro glasses, he could play the cool guy in a Woody Allen movie. And though his short hair is gray, almost white, he's disarmingly boyish.
"Sight Unseen" started life in the late '80s, when Margulies, somewhere between a struggling and emerging writer in his mid-30s, drew the attention, and resulting commission, from South Coast Rep. Rewrites and workshops sharpened what was then called "Heartbreaker," but the playwright says his nine scenes in the life of a Brooklyn painter were "stuck."
At the time, Jonathan Waxman was too much like the man laboring to invent him, so Margulies tweaked his script just slightly, making this starving artist wealthy and successful enough to be hailed as a visionary in Sunday newspapers.
"When I made that decision," he recalls, "I suddenly understood the play. It was a remarkable learning experience as a writer. Inspiration takes all kinds of forms. I made one decision, and the play happened."
Saving three scenes from "Heartbreaker" and adding some new material -- none of it presented in chronological order -- this story became clear: It begins as Jonathan, who has just lost his dad and is about to become a father himself, arrives at the English farmhouse of Patricia, who has also since married. Her husband, a painfully shy archaeologist, greets this visitor from his wife's past without much enthusiasm, and things go downhill from there.
Jonathan discovers that Patricia has held onto the painting in which his talents came together for the first time, a nude portrait of her. It becomes a kind of grail to the artist, who can't quite explain, to himself or to her, why he's sought out an old girlfriend, all these years later. But he is clearly trying to make amends. "We all have chapters in our lives that we look back on and feel we didn't handle very well," Margulies says.
Because of the play's corkscrew structure, it's only later that we see just how unpleasant and abrupt their breakup had been. "Those are scenes of conflict," Margulies says. "Otherwise people are just sitting around having pleasant conversation. For me, that's the fun part. It's what keeps me going."