Born 1954, in Brooklyn, NY; son of Morris (a wall-paper salesman) and Charlene (a homemaker and office worker; maiden name, Bender) Margulies; married Lynn Street (a doctor), 1987; children: Miles. Education: Attended Pratt Institute, 1972-1974; State University of New York—Purchase, B.F.A., 1977.
Freelance graphic designer at various publishing houses and magazines, including Hearst Magazines, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, and Scholastic Magazines, 1977-80; Yale University, New Haven, CT, instructor in play writing 1990-91, 1999—, Yale Drama School, 1992-99; writer. Has been playwright-in-residence four times at the Playwright's Lab, Sundance Institute. Has also developed screenplays for Home Box Office (HBO), National Broadcasting Company, Inc. (NBC), Paramount, Propaganda, Touchstone, Warner Bros., TriStar, and Universal.
Dramatists Guild Council, Writers Guild.
Drama-Logue Award, 1988-1989, and the Obie Award, 1995, both for The Model Apartment; Best Play, Burns Mantle, 1989-1990, for The Loman Family Picnic; Dramatists Guild/Hull-Warriner Award, 1991-1992, Best Play, Burns Mantle, 1991-1992, Best American Play, Obie, 1992, and Pulitzer Prize finalist, 1992, all for Sight Unseen; Best Production of a Play and Best Original Play, L. A. Drama Critics' Circle, 1996, the Drama-Logue Award, 1996, Pulitzer Prize finalist, 1997, and L. A. Ovation Award for Best Production of a Play, 1998, all for Collected Stories; Dramatists Guild/Hull-Warriner Award, 1999, Pulitzer Prize, 2000, Best Off-Broadway Play, Lucille Lortel Award, 2000, and the Outer Critics' Circle Award, 2000, all for Dinner with Friends; Dramatists Guild Fund/Sidney Kingsley Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Theatre, Sidney Kingsley, 2000. Received grants from Creative Artists Public Service, New York Foundation for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.
Luna Park (also see below), produced in New York, NY, at Jewish Repertory Theatre, 1982.
Resting Place, produced in New York, NY, at Theatre for the New City, 1982.
Gifted Children, produced in New York, NY, at Jewish Repertory Theatre, 1983.
Found a Peanut (also see below; produced in New
York, NY, New York Shakespeare Festival, 1984), Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1984.
What's Wrong with This Picture? (also see below; produced in New York, NY, Manhattan Theatre Club, 1985), Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 2001.
Zimmer, produced in New York, NY, at the Jewish Repertory Theatre, 1988.
The Loman Family Picnic (also see below; produced in New York, NY, at Manhattan Theatre Club, 1989), Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1994.
Sight Unseen (also see below; produced in Costa Mesa, CA, at South Coast Repertory, 1991), Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1992.
Pitching to the Star (produced in New York, NY, at West Bank Cafe, 1993), Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1993.
Sight Unseen and Other Plays (includes Sight Unseen, What's Wrong with this Picture?, The Model Apartment, Found a Peanut, and The Loman Family Picnic), Theatre Communications Group, 1995.
July 7, 1994 (produced in Louisville, KY, at Actors Theatre of Louisville, 1995), Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1997.
Collected Stories (produced in Costa Mesa, CA, at South Coast Repertory, 1996), Theatre Communications Group, 1998.
Broken Sleep: Three Plays (includes Nocturne, July 7, 1994, and Broken Sleep, one-act musical written with Michael-John LaChiusa), produced in Williamstown, MA, at Williamstown Theatre Festival, 1997.
Dinner with Friends (produced in Louisville, KY, at Actors Theatre of Louisville, 1998), Theatre Communications Group, 2000.
(Adapter) Sholem Asch, God of Vengeance, produced in Seattle, WA, at A Contemporary Theatre, 2000.
Misadventure, produced in Louisville, KY, at Actors Theatre of Louisville, 2001.
Luna Park: Short Plays and Monologues (includes Luna Park), Theatre Communications Group, 2002.
God of Vengeance, adapted from the play by Sholom Asch, based on a literal translation by Joachim Neugroschel, Theatre Communications Group (New York, NY), 2004.
Also adapter of A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe, for
Dinner with Friends was adapted for television by Home Box Office (HBO), 2001; Collected Stories was adapted for television by Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), 2002.
"My plays are fairly diverse, but their unifying theme is loss.…The ways that people deal with the effect of time, which invariably entails loss, is probably what unites all these works," explained Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist Donald Margulies in an online interview for the Public Broadcasting System's Hollywood Presents series. "I am a second-generation American Jew. I grew up among immigrant Jews, and I think that really has informed my worldview. And it certainly has figured prominently in many of my plays, the notion of identity and questions of assimilation and where one fits in the world."
Margulies was born in Brooklyn in 1954. According to William C. Boles in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Margulies's "mother worked in offices while also raising her two children, while his father was a wallpaper salesman who left for work at six in the morning and did not return home until eleven at night. Despite the long hours he put in, he constantly feared losing his job, even though he worked for the same employers for forty years. Charlene Margulies's optimism and drive for the education and success of her two boys as well as Bob Margulies's pessimism were influential components in the playwright's development."
Margulies credits his parents for a childhood rich in theater and song. His father was an enthusiast for musical theatre. "On his few days off from work and on Sunday mornings he would play his Broadway cast albums the entire day," Boles recounted. Margulies grew up listening to these show tunes on the record player, and, at age nine, attended his first theatrical performance. "Herb Gardner's A Thousand Clowns was the first nonmusical play I ever saw, and I remember how the muscles in my face hurt from grinning in pleasure for two hours. I felt privileged being in a grand Broadway theater packed with well-dressed adults … I was thrilled to add my small sound to all that laughter," he recalledina New York Times essay. The family would make two memorable week-long trips to New York to see plays and musicals. Boles noted: "In the article 'A Playwright's Search for the Spiritual Father' (1992), Margulies remembers: 'I was the only kid in the sixth grade who knew by heart the entire score of Happy Hunting, an obscure Ethel Merman musical I heard countless times.' When he was a senior at John Dewey High School in 1972, the school literary magazine published a short story written by him. The principal found it obscene and confiscated all copies of the journal. Margulies appealed the act of censorship all the way to the United States District Court in Brooklyn, which not only overturned the principal's decision but also praised the future playwright's literary ability."
Enters the World of Theatre
Because of his natural affinity for drawing, Margulies was offered and accepted a scholarship to the Pratt Institute. From there he transferred to the State University of New York at Purchase, where he earned a B.F.A. in Visual Arts while pursuing his interest in play writing. He wrote several plays throughout the 1970s, but not until his collaboration with Joseph Papp did he produce his first Off-Broadway play, Found a Peanut, which premiered in 1984 at the New York Shakespeare Festival. Boles recounted: "Found a Peanut transpires on the last summer day before a new school year begins. It focuses on eight children, ranging in age from four to fourteen, as they play in the courtyard of a Brooklyn apartment building (adult actors play the characters). What at first appears to be a typical day turns out, during the course of the play, to be an important moment in their lives as they face an early loss of their childhood innocence."
One of Margulies' next plays to be produced was The Model Apartment, presented at the Los Angeles Theatre Center in 1988, and revived in 1995 at the Primary Stages in New York. The play is about two Holocaust survivors in Florida and their schizophrenic daughter. Boles stated: "The Model Apartment is a full-length one-act that has been called a black comedy. The title refers to the loaner apartment that Lola and Max find themselves in when their new retirement condominium in Florida is not yet ready for occupation. Instead, they are placed in a studio apartment seemingly filled with the latest newfangled home accessories. At first glance, the set suggests that this Jewish New York couple is moving into the perfect retirement community. However, Margulies quickly begins to strip away the facade of the apartment as well as the seemingly perfect life of the married couple to reveal the disturbing present and horrific past that they want so desperately to escape from, but cannot." Wrote Amy Reiter of Back Stage, "Margulies has a quirky sense of humor, a facility for writing characters who are all-too-real, and talent for revealing dark truths about human nature. It's hard to imagine this work getting better, more sensitive treatment than it gets here."
The Loman Family Picnic, first presented at the Manhattan Theatre Club Stage II in 1989, is a black comedy. The play, which is semi-autobiographical, features a middle-class Jewish family at odds over the bar mitzvah of their oldest son. According to Boles, "with The Loman Family Picnic Margulies continues his exploration of the effect of the past on a Jewish family, but this play is a far more personal journey for Margulies as he finally captures the voice and life of his father through Herbie, the lighting fixture salesman of the play." The play revolves around a bar mitzvah for the son Stewie. The bar mitzvah is more lavish and expensive than the family can really afford because Stewie's father wants to impress his friends. The play has many parallels with Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, including a disgruntled salesman father with two sons who lives in Brooklyn, and is named after the family in Miller's play. Margulies said in his New York Times article, "I imagined that our high-rise was one of the buildings that over-shadowed the Loman's modest house. Years later, in The Loman Family Picnic, I took that notion and made a play out of it."
California's South Coast Repertory commissioned and produced Margulies's eighth full-length play, Sight Unseen, a Pulitzer Prize finalist. The award-winning play enjoyed an eight-month run with a production that began at the Manhattan Theatre Club Stage II and later was moved to the Orpheum Theatre. The play centers around Jonathan Waxman, "an American Jewish painter whose controversial works are bought—sight unseen—for bundles of money," explained Stephen J. Dubner in his New York magazine review. Not content with fame and wealth, the artist is portrayed as a man without hope, unsettled and intense. The play is a recounting of Waxman's search for meaning, an attempt to make sense of the price he has paid for fame. Some critics maintained that Waxman was modeled after artist Eric Fischl, who saw the play and was not thrilled. "The artist came off looking like a charlatan, a character who can't defend himself. And I certainly don't know any artist whose sole purpose is to become famous and make a lot of money," he told Dubner. Margulies was aware of the resemblance, but claimed to admire Fischl as an artist. Theater critic John Simon noted in New York, "Any serious examination of anything is going to upset somebody.…Margulies cloaks things in nothing. He gives them to you as he sees them, but as he sees them very carefully and conscientiously and thoughtfully observed, from all sides."
What's Wrong with This Picture?, produced by the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1985 and subsequently produced to critical acclaim at the Jewish Repertory Theatre in 1990, became, in 1994, Margulies's sole Broadway production to date and a self-described "debacle." Though it featured Faith Prince and Jerry Stiller, the play was generally panned by morning-after critics. His next production, a two-person play titled Collected Stories, met with a much warmer reception by audiences and critics alike. Commissioned by the South Coast Repertory, the play was produced at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York in 1997 and starred Helen Mirren in its London premiere in 1999. The story mirrors the real-life occasion when novelist David Leavitt used as the basis for his novel While England Sleeps the memoirs of poet Steven Spender. Recalled Margulies of the event in his Hollywood Presents interview, "This became a cause celebre in literary circles and I followed it with great interest. I began to feel that there was a play in that, and in my experience as a teacher." Margulies changed the protagonists to women, primarily because he felt he could be more objective as a writer if the characters were female. Margulies commented in the Hollywood Presents interview, "I think Collected Stories has traveled well because its themes cross cultures.… Most people, at some point in their lives, have known what it's like to be a student or a teacher, a child or a parent, to have loved someone not their child with the intensity of a parent for a child or vice versa. Most people have felt betrayed or committed betrayal, deliberately or unknowingly."
Wins a Pulitzer Prize
Margulies won the Pulitzer Prize for Dinner with Friends, a play revolving around two couples and the impact on them of one of the couple's divorce. The play examines those pitfalls common to most marriages—unrealized dreams, repressed desires, and the difficulties of holding on through the evolution of long-term partnerships. Ultimately it is a celebration of monogamy and commitment.
Gabe and Karen have been friends with Tom and Beth for what seems an eternity. These baby boomers have found as much security with each other as they have with their respective spouses. So when Tom and Beth announce their plans to divorce, Gabe and Karen are not only shocked, but also angry. The changes Beth and Tom have chosen to make in their lives force Karen and Gabe to scrutinize their own marriage, and both begin to feel insecure. Joyce Hart, writing in Drama for Students, found that "Margulies' Dinner with Friends is about what happens to couples and relationships when the illusion of solidity comes face to face with abrupt and shattering change. The experience can be as devastating as an earthquake: the sudden realization that the earth, which at one moment feels rock-hard underfoot, suddenly feels, at best, as in-substantial as a great pool of rolling waves. Then there are the aftershocks. That's where the point of Margulies' play is focused, on the aftershocks, the reflections on the meanings of the initial jolts of change." The drama enjoyed a successful run in Paris as well as in New York. When asked why he thought the story appealed to both cultures, Margulies told Farnsworth, "Unwittingly, I think that the play taps into the zeitgeist in a way that I certainly couldn't have predicted.…It gives voice to certain issues that people are living with or grappling with, … that have not been articulated."
If you enjoy the works of Donald Margulies
you might want to check out the following plays:
David Auburn, Proof, 2001.
Amy Freed, Freedomland, 1999.
Neil Simon, Lost in Yonkers, 1991.
The strongest aspect of Margulies' writing, according to Boles, is "his ability to use little details and small moments to suggest the hollowness of life, especially in regard to personal failures, loneliness, economic struggles, familial conflicts, the numbing repetition of daily existence, and the elusive nature of love." Boles concluded: "While Margulies's career began rockily in the 1980s, in the 1990s he has established himself as a preeminent chronicler of not only the Jewish experience, but also the American experience, and of the inherent joys and pains of everyday living."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 76, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 228: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, Second Series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2000.
Drama for Students, Volume 13, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2001.
American Theatre, July-August, 1994, Stephanie Coen, "In His Family Plots, Nothing's Funnier Than Despair," pp. 46-47.
Back Stage, July 6, 1990, Brian Bradley, "What's Wrong with This Picture?," p. 33; February 14, 1992, David Sheward, review of Sight Unseen, p. 27; December 10, 1993, David Lefkowitz, review of The Loman Family Picnic, p. 33; December 30, 1994, David Sheward, review of What's Wrong with This Picture?, p. 23; October 27, 1995, Jerry Tallmer, "Open House for Donald Margulies' Model Apartment," p. 19, Amy Reiter, review of The Model Apartment, p. 37; May 16, 1997, Simi Horowitz, "The Collected Stories of Playwright Donald Margulies," p. 19; May 30, 1997, Irene Backalenick, review of Collected Stories, p. 52.
Booklist, September 15, 1998, Jack Helbig, review of Collected Stories, p. 187.
Entertainment Weekly, October 23, 1998, Degen Pener, review of Collected Stories, p. 68.
Nation, March 2, 1992, Thomas M. Disch, review of Sight Unseen, pp. 282-283.
New Leader, July 13, 1992, Stefan Kanfer, review of Sight Unseen, p. 23; September 7, 1998, Stefan Kanfer, review of Collected Stories, pp. 22-23.
New Republic, April 17, 2000, Robert Brustein, "On Theatre—Plays Fat and Thin," p. 64.
New York, June 25, 1984, John Simon, "Of, By, and For the Birds," pp. 56-57; March 9, 1992, Stephen J. Dubner, "In the Paint," pp. 48, 50-52; January 2, 1995, John Simon, review of What's Wrong with This Picture?, p. 69.
New York Times, June 21, 1992, Donald Margulies, "A Playwright's Search for the Spiritual Father," p. 5; April 11, 2000, review of Dinner with Friends, p. A26.
North American Review, July-August, 1994, Robert L. King, review of Sight Unseen, pp. 44-48.
Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present Volume 8, number 1, 1993, June Schlueter, "Ways of Seeing in Donald Margulies's Sight Unseen," pp. 3-11.
Time, November 29, 1993, William A. Henry III, review of The Loman Family Picnic, p. 73; January 17, 2000, William Tynan, review of Dinner with Friends, p. 96.
Variety, November 9, 1998, David Mermelstein, review of Dinner with Friends, p. 42; April 17, 2000, Robert Hofler, "Pulitzer Comes to Dinner," p. 54.
Yale Bulletin and Calendar, April 14, 2000, Dorie Baker, "Donald Margulies Wins Pulitzer Prize for Drama."
Hollywood Presents,http://www.pbs.org/hollywoodpresents/ (January 23, 2002).
Moonstruck,http://www.imagi-nation.com/ (January 11, 2002).
Online NewsHour,http://www.pbs.org/newshour/ (April 13, 2000), Elizabeth Farnsworth, interview with Margulies.
Portland Stage,http://www.portlandstage.com/ (January 11, 2002).
Pulitzer Board,http://www.pulitzer.org/ (April 18, 2002).*