English Professor Donald Margulies sat with scene on Tuesday to discuss the New York City run of his new play, “Time Stands Still.” From behind his desk in Linsley-Chittenden, he spoke calmly. The man has won a Pulitzer Prize, so yeah, he’s at ease with all forms of dialogue.
Margulies has enjoyed an especially close relationship with the South Coast Repertory Theater in Orange County, which has commissioned five of his major works. The Manhattan Theater Club has brought eight of his productions to New York City and will host “Time Stands Still” when it officially opens Jan. 28th.
The drama unfolds around photojournalist Sarah, portrayed by Laura Linney, newly wounded and back from Iraq with her reporter partner James (Brain d’Arcy James). The other leads are Eric Bogosian and Alicia Silverstone. But this show is a love story with a bellicose backdrop, not a war story with a romantic backdrop.
Q: Dan Sullivan, director of four of your productions including “Time Stands Still,” was quoted in the LA Times as saying you have a “very serious heart” as a writer. How do you reconcile writing comedy with a “serious heart”? It seems like a bit of a paradox.
A: When people ask me to describe my plays they ask, “Is it a comedy, or is it a drama?” and I respond, “It’s a play.” My plays are often very funny, but the humor in it comes out of the behavior of the characters. I write funny, clever people, but I am not imposing my sense of humor. It’s stuff that the characters come up with — and I don’t mean to sound mystical about that. You present something as character A, and think, well, how would character B respond to this? You just get into the rhythm of it.
Q: So it’s a behavioral schema that drives the dialogue?
A: Even beyond the behavioral is the intellectual. For instance, the character that Alicia [Silverstone] plays is fairly unpretentious, bright, but callow young woman, who speaks in very simple language.
A: Unformed. Not worldly. And the character played by Laura Linney is worldly and is caustic in her sense of humor. So they would have a different way of relating to each other, different frames of reference. The humor comes out with those criteria in mind. I don’t write jokes, I don’t know how to write jokes, I can’t tell jokes. I really don’t have the mind to do that. But my characters are clever. The kind of thing the audience seems to respond to is a laughter of recognition. My plays prompt a lot of elbowing of one [audience member] to the other.
Q: There are a lot of big names in “Time Stands Still.” Does having big names on stage detract from the ‘reality’ of animating the characters themselves? Alicia Silverstone seems inseparable from “Clueless,” at least to me.
A: I don’t feel it’s compromised in the least. They are all good actors. For example, Laura Linney sort of rose from the ranks along with me. My play “Sight Unseen,” when it was originally produced in 1991-’92 season, was my breakthrough as a playwright and the first full commercial run I enjoyed. Laura played a supporting role in it in 1992 — a breakthrough for her. She was plucked from Off-Broadway and started getting roles in movies and television.
Q: You often make a distinction between ‘Off-Broadway’ and ‘On-Broadway,’ why do you avoid classifying your plays as ‘Broadway’ shows?
A: I never aspired to be a Broadway playwright. I’ve been writing plays and being produced now for over 30 years and Broadway was never a destination for me, it was where I ended up. Broadway has taken on a pejorative tone. I describe it as “Disneyland” or “Las Vegas,” it’s become a theme park of sorts. So the fact that I write serious plays — which doesn’t mean that they are dramas in the angst-ridden sense, but that they have serious aspirations — means they are not boulevard comedy. When my plays land on Broadway, it is almost accidental. I am very, very lucky that I am at a theater — the Manhattan Theater Company — that has supported my writing for 25 years. This is my eighth production there. This is my third production with Laura Linney, and it just feels right. I set out to write a good play, and I guess I’m now at the stage of my career that I have enough credibility that good people will be attracted to my work.
Q: In many of your plays, including “Time Stands Still,” you address what you refer to as ‘the problem of being an artist’ — is there something unique about artists that lend themselves well to getting at the essential truths of humanity?
A: That does seem to be a progression in my work. I think because I am an artist it is a way for me to channel my perceptions through my characters, who are not autobiographical but who may share certain attitudes and questions that I have. I think maybe that’s what’s happened. I tend to write articulate and witty characters, and sometimes they’re artists.
Q: In the LA Times interview you mentioned that you are not advancing an ideological agenda but rather just about the relationship between the characters. Why?
A: Ultimately, what people are responding to in “Time Stands Still” is the love story. But the setting and the stakes are very high. And very timely, very much on people’s minds: how do we live a moral life? The themes that have wended their way into my work tend to be largely accidental. It’s not as if I had an agenda and a formula.
Q: What is it like writing about an actual conflict, i.e. the Iraq war, versus an ideological conflict? How, if at all, do you incorporate the two in “Time Stands Still”?
A: What I set out to do was not that, certainly not overtly, but to create a very specific world and a very specific context for the examination. I don’t write political plays and yet because my plays are about people’s relationship to the world, they are intrinsically political. But they are not conforming to an agenda that is political. I try to show truthful aspects of human nature and human behavior. I’ve done my best to try to dispel the notion that this is an “Iraq play” because I don’t view it that way at all.
Q: Do you think there is an inextricable morality tied to producing art? For example, you write stories that people relate to and that might cause them to change their behavior. Do you feel a duty to portray ‘the right thing’?
A: I have a responsibility to tell the truth, to not provide answers to large questions, but to dramatize the dilemmas so that people begin to see points of view they might not see in their own minds. I don’t have solutions to huge issues. But I do demonstrate the effects of the world in our living rooms. That is what interests me as an audience member, as a human being and as a playwright.
“Time Stands Still,” directed by Daniel Sullivan, written by Donald Margulies, opens at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater. Tickets are available online at http://www.mtc-nyc.org/current-season/time_stands_still/tickets.asp. Now in previews. With Eric Bogosian, Brian d’Arcy James, Laura Linney, Alicia Silverstone.