Donald Margulies is impatient. “As soon as I fall out of love with a line, I want it gone,” says the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. It doesn’t always mean the line disappears; directors like Bart DeLorenzo aren’t always ready to wield the knife. Margulies feigns offense and says, “Hey, I thought we killed that!” DeLorenzo laughs and replies, “I know. When it’s dead to you, it’s dead to you.”
The two sit in the founders’ room off the Geffen Playhouse lobby, energized by the play, but also missing their old friend Gil Cates. Cates founded the theater and produced more than a dozen Oscar telecasts; he died just over a year ago. The mainstage at Geffen is named in his honor.
Margulies and DeLorenzo have long histories at Geffen Playhouse and with Cates, and this is the playwright’s and director’s second play together. Over the years, Cates brought in Margulies’ Time Stands Still before it moved on to Broadway, Collected Stories and his 2000 Pulitzer winner Dinner With Friends. (Collected Stories and Margulies’ Sight Unseen were Pulitzer finalists in 1997 and 1992 respectively.) In 2009, Margulies teamed up with DeLorenzo to mount his play Shipwrecked! An Entertainment: The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (as Told by Himself), first at South Coast Repertory, which commissioned it, and then at the Geffen.
This time the duo premieres Margulies’ Coney Island Christmas, a piece Cates commissioned. Shipwrecked and Coney Island Christmas forced Margulies to write with a young audience in mind, although “kid” never leaves his lips in our conversation — it’s always “children” — and it’s seemingly a departure for a writer who has earned acclaim for writing on adult themes.
For Children, Not Childish
Shipwrecked initially was meant for SCR’s Theatre for Young Audiences, but the production moved to SCR’s mainstage. “As that play evolved, I realized it’s far bigger than a children’s play because of the universality of the themes,” Margulies says. “It had a timeless quality, and I didn’t want it to be ghettoized as a children’s play.”
And when people came to see it, Margulies heard them say, “Gee, this doesn’t seem like one of your plays at all.” “And I differed with that because I felt it was completely in line with what I’d done in the past: the nature of storytelling, the role of the artist in society,” says Margulies. “There are moments in it that deal with parents and children and loss. These are moments that recur throughout my work. I just found a different way to tell the story.”
Coney Island Christmas shares with Shipwrecked its G rating but emphasizes nostalgia. “It’s particularly poignant now,” says Margulies who has friends in Seagate, at the end of Coney Island, who could have lost their home in Hurricane Sandy but didn’t.
“But the Coney Island of my childhood is gone,” he laments. “Shirley Abramowitz, who takes us on a tour of her past, is in her 80s and shows us an idealized Coney Island, which I wasn’t privy to as a kid in the ’60s. It had already disappeared.”
Sandy is gone, too. Many affected residents who were without power have received non-discounted utility bills. And Margulies says if Coney Island ever is rebuilt, it’ll have to be redefined by a younger generation. It bothers him that the quaintness of sideshows and arcades long ago gave way to noisy neon and electronic sounds. He instead spent his summers on nearby Brighton Beach, mostly because he and his family lived only a couple of blocks away. “We couldn’t afford anything else,” he says.
Having Themselves a Jewish Christmas
When Cates asked Margulies to develop a Christmas show, the writer joked, “Okay, but I’ll write a Jewish Christmas play.” But then, he says, “I proceeded to panic because I had no idea what I was going to write. Thankfully I remembered a short story I had read in high school by Grace Paley, The Loudest Voice, reread it and was struck again by what a delightful premise it was.”
The Coney Island of Margulies’ youth and his family history are very much a part of this play, he says. “It’s a specific tangible reference for me. The stories represent a time and place that I learned about through my grandparents. The people in it are amalgams of the immigrant Jewish population that I knew growing up in the ’60s.”
Paley wrote about Abramowitz, a Jewish girl cast as Jesus in the school Christmas pageant because she has the loudest voice. Margulies says, “One of the responsibilities I felt was that children would be brought to see this play, and for many of them it will be the first play they ever see. I did recognize that responsibility in giving them something accessible and a little magical that spoke to them, not down to them, and something that would resonate to the parents and grandparents of those children.”
He brings up Thornton Wilder: “Our Town continues to be a holy grail for me. One of the discoveries I had made after dispatching Wilder to the kitsch bin when I was younger was how profound it was. There is no sugar coating, no pandering to children. I may have seen terrible school productions of it that made everything seem trite and hackneyed and old-fashioned, but when I saw it again in my 30s, I was just gob-smacked by how existential it is.”
One of LA’s busiest directors, DeLorenzo founded Evidence Room theater almost 20 years ago and directed numerous plays, including Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth. He has received coveted LA Weekly Theater awards, Back Stage Garlands, and three LA Drama Critics Circle awards. He also earned the 2012 Theatre Communications Group Alan Schneider Award for Directing.
DeLorenzo recently helmed Cymbeline at A Noise Within and has a date with LA Theatre Works coming up (Terrence McNally’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart) and possibly a gig after that with Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman. (He previously directed Mullally in Kelly Stuart’s Mayhem and Adam Bock’s The Receptionist.)
He is accustomed to working with playwrights living and dead. There are advantages to both. The dead ones, of course, can’t disagree. “With Mr. Shakespeare you can cut and rearrange as you will,” DeLorenzo says. “But wouldn’t it be nice to tell Mr. Shakespeare, ‘I’d like to cut this, would you mind cutting it or rearranging it for me?’ I feel, my egotism speaking, if he were sitting next to me he would say ‘Oh, I agree completely, it’s gone on way too long!’ and he would jump in and do what I’m doing, only do a much better job of it. Every playwright is different, and there are some, though not many I work with, who feel if you want to make even a slight change that you’re throwing acid on the Mona Lisa. Don is not that kind of writer.”
With Margulies and other living playwrights, DeLorenzo will read a script, develop questions and ask the playwright where the germ of the idea came from. “That gets my imagination started,” he says.
Surprises may come during the table read and workshop stages. As DeLorenzo recalls, “The casting breakdown on Coney Island Christmas and Shipwrecked changed during the workshops as we began to listen: the play tells you what it needs. We had a reading of Coney Island this February with two days of rehearsal. Donald edited the script and we explored the music, just around a table, but we got a good sense of it.”
DeLorenzo describes himself as a collaborative, storytelling director who has to keep it simple: “My own experience as an audience member tells me I’m very easily distracted and very easily confused, so I really try to carve a really clear path through a story. Once I’ve done that, then I feel like I can have a lot of fun. Once the bones are there, you can decorate them a whole bunch of different ways.”
He has earned Margulies’ respect. Says the playwright, “I utterly trust this man. It was only when Gil died that I worked overtime to finish the play because I promised my friends here at the Geffen that they would have it for Christmas ’12. We met that deadline. Sadly, Gil never got to read the early draft of the play. But when it came into focus for me, Bart was the first director I thought of.”
Margulies has little appreciation for playwrights who direct their own works. “I never think it’s a good idea,” he says. He is a playwright who admits he cannot see full scope with sound and lighting and sets.
And while DeLorenzo feels comfortable adapting the works of Shakespeare and others, he says he doesn’t have the ear for writing more than program notes. “Capturing humans talking or specific tones or flavors, that’s not my gift,” he says.
But the two men mesh well. And it felt to Margulies as if Coney Island Christmas had come from such an emotional place that it was best to build it from the ground up with the director. “It required invention and problem solving,” he says. “Bart will tell you this has presented him with many challenges.”
DeLorenzo laughs and adds, “There is not a spare inch backstage. It’s a giant Broadway musical in a small theater. I don’t even think there’s room for the 20 actors!”
Cates had even invited Margulies to add a skating rink if he wished. “He said, ‘I want it to be big!’” Margulies reports. “Gil wanted to make this an annual event; LA doesn’t have anything like this.”
“Gil was such a supporter and prince among men,” says DeLorenzo, who also directed Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress at the Geffen. “He had such a strong exuberant spirit that you could feel blocks away from the building. And months away from a project, you could feel the embrace of support. Oftentimes he was more excited about your work than you were.”
Geffen Playhouse, DeLorenzo says, has a very special feeling to it. “I feel we’re all handpicked by Gil, and I don’t know what criteria were in his head, but you do feel like you’re in the bosom of a family here. The creation of this theater is an enormous legacy to one man. I hope this play will be part of that legacy.” Or, as the playwright and Yale adjunct professor of English and Theatre Studies adds, a living tribute.
Coney Island Christmas, at Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. Opens Nov. 29. Tue-Sat 8 pm, Sat. 3 pm, Sun 2 pm. Through Dec. 30. Tickets $45-$75. 310-208-5454. www.geffenplayhouse.com.
***All Coney Island Christmas production photos by Michael Lamont