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You live it, he writes it

[Publicity photo]
Matthew Arkin, from left, Lisa Emery, Carolyn McCormick and Jonathan Walker star in Margulies' Dinner with Friends, which is playing off-Broadway. The play won this year's Pulitzer Prize.

By JOHN FLEMING, Performing arts critic

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 13, 2000

Do you go to the theater to see yourself onstage? Or do you prefer a play that transports you to an unfamiliar place?

I'm not necessarily thinking of realism versus fantasy. Angels in America was very much a fantasy, with everything from a bomb-throwing Bolshevik to an 18th century fop to an avenging angel in the mix of characters. But Tony Kushner's AIDS-haunted urbanites were so familiar that they might have walked right out of the local gay bar, circa 1990.

Arthur Miller, on the other hand, is regarded as the great American realist. But even his signature play, Death of a Salesman, owes a lot to fantasy. Willy Loman flickers in and out of reality in a hallucinatory, coming-apart-at-the-seams kind of way that recalls a nightmare painting by Dali. The inside of Willy's head is strange, unfamiliar territory.

Today, the theatergoing public seems to be coming down firmly on the side of plays that put the audience onstage, judging from the success of Donald Margulies.

Margulies is the American playwright of the moment. Dinner With Friends, his comedy-drama on marriage and friendship, won this year's Pulitzer Prize for drama and continues to play to packed houses off-Broadway.

Publicity photo]
Isa Thomas, left, plays Ruth Steiner and Rebecca Baldwin plays Lisa Morrison in the Asolo Theatre production of Collected Stories by Donald Margulies.
Collected Stories, Margulies' two-woman play about a celebrated short story writer and her protege, is a staple of regional theater. A fine production is now playing at the Asolo Theatre in Sarasota.

In some ways, his Pulitzer winner marks a departure for Margulies, 45, who grew up in Brooklyn and teaches playwrighting at Yale. His previous plays, including Sight Unseen and The Loman Family Picnic, were concerned with being Jewish in America.

Many critics have hailed Dinner With Friends for its craftsmanship, and I wouldn't disagree. In seven compact, superbly calibrated scenes, the play traces the breakup of Beth and Tom, a couple in their 40s with two children, in counterpoint to the relationship of their best friends, the happily married Gabe and Karen.

Some find the play too neat and tidy, with the whole unruly yarn wrapped up in just over two hours, but such is the fashion nowadays. Art by Yasmina Reza is another popular recent play that applies sitcom methods to the theater of ideas.

In a clever way, Margulies turns Tolstoy on his head, reversing the maxim of Anna Karenina about happy families being all alike but every unhappy family being unhappy in its own way. The unhappy couple of Dinner With Friends is the predictable pair, at least in the performance I saw last month at the Variety Arts Theatre in New York.

Tom (Jonathan Walker) is a jaded lawyer who throws away his 12-year marriage for a fling with a travel agent. He justifies his loutish behavior with greeting-card platitudes about being in love. As for his wife Beth (Carolyn McCormick), she goes from being a frustrated artist and a bit of a ditz to getting her act together -- and taking up with a lover -- after Tom walks out.

Tom and Beth are an old story and not all that interesting.

It's the other couple that strikes a chord with the upper-middle-class theatergoers who have made Dinner With Friends a hit. In part, the audience is responding to the good taste of Gabe (Matthew Arkin) and Karen (Lisa Emery). They're food writers, the sort of people who go on a culinary junket to Italy and write it up for a glossy magazine. When Beth tells them of the breakup, it's over perfect lemon-almond polenta in their perfectly appointed kitchen in suburban Connecticut.

However, the heart of Margulies' play is the threat that Gabe and Karen feel from their friends' marital crisis. To put it cynically, they had an emotional investment in the happiness of Tom and Beth -- in fact, they introduced the pair on Martha's Vineyard one summer -- and now their investment has gone bad.

"We were supposed to grow old and fat together, the four of us," Gabe tells Tom.

They worry that the same thing could happen to them, that domestic matters -- "Having kids, having to pay the mortgage, marinating the snapper," Gabe enumerates -- dull love to the point that chucking it all looks appealing.

Gabe and Karen also fear for their coupledom. Not necessarily that one of them might have an affair, but that without Tom and Beth as a pair (they can't imagine a relationship with either alone), they can only retreat into their own comfortable cocoon. Dinner With Friends is remarkably acute in exploring the tendency of married couples who have it all to turn in on themselves, to become isolated in their affluence.

Collected Stories is not as ambitious. But it may be more entertaining for literary-minded audiences, with its bookish name-dropping, ranging from Anita Brookner to Jane Smiley to Ed Doctorow, the Kenyon Review to Grand Street, Saul Bellow to John Berryman. Margulies even manages to work in New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm -- who once declared that every journalist ultimately betrays his or her subject -- in a sort of insider reference to the theme of the play.

When a graduate writing student named Lisa Morrison (played by Rebecca Baldwin at the Asolo) shows up for a tutorial at the Greenwich Village apartment of Ruth Steiner (Isa Thomas), she acts as if she is on hallowed ground. She gushes over an edition of Middlemarch and blushes like a flustered schoolgirl.

"Being here, studying with you, it's like a religious experience for me," Lisa says.

Ruth succumbs to the flattery. She is a short story writer of leftist leanings (I was reminded of Grace Paley), famous for chronicling Jewish intellectual life in New York in the 1950s. However, her prime is past, and she has some regrets about never having children, about the passage of time and the value of her work.

Lisa becomes Ruth's assistant and eventually develops into a writer to be reckoned with. When her debut collection of stories comes out, the New York Times dubs her "a keen and clever chronicler of the new lost generation."

Collected Stories is about what happens when disciple usurps mentor. The inevitable blowup occurs over Lisa's first novel, in which she appropriates a cherished memory of Ruth's about the heroic, ruined poet of her youth, Delmore Schwartz.

"Stay away from Schwartz; leave him out of it," Ruth warns. "He's mine, not yours."

There's something obvious about the conflict between Lisa and Ruth, and despite some good chemistry between Baldwin and Thomas, I wasn't really convinced by their shop talk about editors and agents, the overuse of adjectives and a writer's source material. Theatrical intelligence is not as subtle as literary intelligence.

Still, Collected Stories is a good introduction to Margulies, who gives every indication of being a playwright with plenty more to say.

Collected Stories runs through June 24 at the Asolo Theatre. Tickets are $26 and $29. Call (941) 351-8000 or (800) 361-8388.

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