New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

Ethnic Theater - Jewish

Interview--playwright Donald Margulies and "The Loman Family Picnic"
Playreading--Long Wharf Theatre, New Haven, Ct.

To mark the 350th anniversary of Jews in America, the Jewish Federation of New Haven (Connecticut) joined forces with the city’s Long Wharf Theatre. Together they staged readings of plays by American Jews. Opening the recent three-day event was Donald Margulies’ “The Loman Family Picnic,” with the playwright himself on hand for a follow-up discussion. Besides Margulies’ “Family Picnic,” the series included Clifford Odets “Awake and Sing,” and Sylvia Regan’s “Morning Star.”

“The work of a dramatist is to take what you know and raise the stakes, change that into something dramatic,” says Margulies, acknowledging that his own family background has had a profound influence on his work.

Margulies, whose body of work spans thirty years (including his Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Dinner With Friends”) now has a new play, “Brooklyn Boy,” opening on Broadway. Focusing on a novelist struggling with family problems, this play, too, has the ring of personal truth and personal experience.

“The Loman Family Picnic” deals with a middle-class Jewish-American family—father, mother, two sons (similar to the one in which Margulies was raised)—who live in a Brooklyn high-rise apartment house. Though the Lomans are preparing happily for the older son’s bah-mitzvah, it soon becomes apparent that all is not well in high-rise heaven. The father struggles to pay the bills, the mother fantasizes about another life, the boys react unhappily to the family tensions. Margulies manages to make the story hilarious and touching and searingly believable. He writes about trapped people and the devastatingly materialistic world in which they live. The multi-layered piece carries the sting of satire.

It was a play in which Margulies risked experimentation.

”With this play I broke all kinds of rules. Stream of consciousness, breaking the fourth wall, bursting into song, ghosts appearing and interacting were all part of this particular play. It required it.”

That Margulies uses the family name Loman is no accident. He acknowledges a debt of gratitude to Arthur Miller, who also created a troubled family in “Death of a Salesman.” But Miller was careful, in those post-war years, not to make his characters clearly Jewish, as Margulies, in a later period, had no hesitancy in doing.

“When this play began to present itself, I found that the shadow of Arthur Miller loomed tremendously over this play….and, rather than deny that fact, I decided to embrace it,” Margulies says.

Long Wharf’s co-artistic director Kim Rubinstein opened the follow-up discussion by asking the playwright if the work was autobiographical.

Well, yes and no, it seems.

“I took the essence of the experience of having grown up in a house very much like this, but I decided to raise the stakes,” Margulies replied, acknowledging that he could not have written the play, however, while his parents were still alive.

“When I was growing up, the Holocaust and the Depression loomed palpably in my house,” Margulies continued. “The scars of the Depression on my parents were terrible. That interested me in all my plays—the legacy that parents instill in their children, intentionally or otherwise.”

But the Margulies legacy also included a love of theater.

“My family didn’t go to synagogue; they went to Broadway,” he explained. “My father loved the Broadway musical. We would listen to cast albums on Sunday mornings. At nine my first play was “A Thousand Clowns” by Herb Gardner. A great introduction!”

And when Rubinstein asked, “Do you think of yourself as an ethnic writer (that is, a Jewish writer)?” he replied, “I think of myself as a writer foremost.”

But he continues, “I believe that writers have to tell the truth as they know it”….

and his work is often Jewish “when the story demands it.”

But in the specific is the universal. “You don’t have to be Jewish to understand this family,” he said.

When asked if playwriting was a personal catharsis, Margulies replied, “I don’t write plays to expiate guilt. I write plays because I want to illuminate the experience of life….for everybody.”

-- Irene Backalenick
Jan. 14, 2005

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