AMERICAN THEATRE MAGAZINE ARTICLE
Donald Margulies, Brooklyn Boy, Feted in William Inge’s Kansas Hometown
The playwright was this year’s honoree at the annual festival in Independence, which featured a generous sampling of his work, and Jen Silverman was the New Voices Award winner.
In March, I ran into director Daniel Sullivan at our local diner on the Upper West Side. “Am I seeing you in Kansas?” I asked. No, said Dan; he had a conflict. But I must give him a report when I get back.
“Kansas” is shorthand for the festival that this year will honor a mutual friend, playwright Donald Margulies. Each year the William Inge Theatre Festival and Conference, held in Inge’s hometown of Independence, recognizes a different playwright: Past honorees have included Edward Albee, August Wilson, Stephen Sondheim, Wendy Wasserstein, Marsha Norman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green. This year, the festival was held April 17-19 at Independence Community College.
Independence has no Amtrak station. No regular bus service connects it to the outside world. The airport you use to get there is in Tulsa, which is in another state. If you want to get to Independence, you have to muster determination. And yet, every year for the past 34 years, a substantial number of actors, writers and directors—largely from New York and Los Angeles—gather there to celebrate that season’s honoree.
Truth to tell, Independence is a place that Inge—a gay man seeking a life in the arts—fled at the earliest opportunity. Still, he brought Independence’s influence with him to Broadway in such long-running plays as Picnic, Bus Stop, Dark at the Top of the Stairs and Come Back, Little Sheba.
It’s also where a film based on one of his screenplays was shot. There’s a story about that: A house owned by a lady in the town struck the producers as a likely location, and some of the filmmakers visited it to talk to her about it. Later, someone asked the lady about the visit. “Oh,” she said, “that funny little Billy Inge. He came by with some Chinaman and some Jew.” These were legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe and director Eliza Kazan—who was Greek, not Jewish, though the confusion was hardly uncommon. (Boris Kaufman ended up shooting the film instead of Howe.) The film was Splendor in the Grass.
Margulies, who hails from Brooklyn and whose work owes little discernible debt to Inge, was done proud by this year’s Inge Festival. One evening was devoted to a reading of his most recent play, The Country House. The story concerns a middle-aged actor whose family make room for him because of the biological connection but otherwise treat him with ill-concealed condescension because he doesn’t have the talent they do. When it played Broadway, some of the critics, paying overmuch attention to the influence of Chekhov, gave it a sniffy reception. It deserves better. (It won the Ovation Award in Los Angeles as the season’s best new play based on its run at the Geffen Playhouse.)
Todd Cerveris, who had only a handful of days to rehearse and was reading pages on a music stand, gave a detailed and nuanced performance as the actor son, and Kandis Chappell matched him as his mother, a leading lady who can’t manage to act well enough to persuade her son he is loved. It is discouraging that theatres outside of New York let the New York Times do their thinking for them and haven’t scheduled productions of this, one of Margulies’s most intricate and moving plays.
Another regular feature of the festival is the celebration of a younger writer designated the Otis Guernsey New Voices Award winner. This year, the winner was Jen Silverman, who got a reading of her play The Moors, a cheerfully bizarre work about two eccentric sisters, a governess, a schizoid maid and a philosophical dog all going bonkers due to the isolation of the terrain in which they live. It put me in mind of the 19th century settlers who were often driven by similar isolation on the plains of Kansas to psychotic breaks, murder and suicide.
For their part, the gregarious, generous Kansans around us on the night of the Saturday night banquet at the Booth Hotel didn’t seem likely to go bonkers. There were salutes to the small army of volunteers who each year work hundreds of hours to bring a taste of professional theatre to Independence. (The town doesn’t have a big enough audience to support an ongoing professional company.) After the festivities, I found myself chatting with a girl who talked about being introduced to Inge’s plays in high school. I remarked about what might be gleaned from his plays about how life was lived during and after the Depression in places like Independence, and about how his portraits of women, Jews and closeted gays struggling in such towns offers a reminder of how profoundly America’s social attitudes have changed in the intervening years. “I don’t know,” the girl said. “Independence is still a pretty conservative place.”
Sunday night brought the big event, a multimedia Margulies celebration adroitly organized by festival director Karen Carpenter. Featured were a series of smartly edited video clips of Donald’s friends and collaborators, including longtime playwriting pal Jane Anderson, actor Laura Linney (whose career was launched with a supporting part in Sight Unseen Off-Broadway) and his frequent producer, Manhattan Theatre Club artistic director Lynne Meadow. Between these are substantial excerpts from several of his plays, directed by Carpenter and Jen Markowitz, including What’s Wrong with this Picture?, The Loman Family Picnic, Sight Unseen, and Brooklyn Boy.
A highlight was Kandis Chappell as Ruth Steiner, the betrayed author in Collected Stories. It’s a part that Maria Tucci, Uta Hagen and Linda Lavin all played with distinction in New York, but Chappell originated the role at South Coast Rep, and Donald has always spoken of her with special enthusiasm. It was easy to see why. This reminded me once again that, as lucky as those of us who live in New York are to see a great range of performers, there are world-class actors like California-based Chappell to whom we have yet to be introduced.
At the end of evening came a bonus: Out walked Daniel Sullivan to speak of the satisfactions of his long collaboration with Donald. At the party after, I said to him, “You lied to me in the diner.” “Yes, I did,” he said. It doesn’t seem to bother him.
Kandis Chappell and Suzanne Cryer in the 1996 world premiere of “Collected Stories” at South Coast Rep.
will be honored with the
William Inge Distinguished Achievement in the American Theater Award
34th Annual William Inge Theatre Festival
Independence, Kansas, at Independence Community College, on April 19, 2015.
Born in Brooklyn in 1954, Donald Margulies grew up in Trump Village, a Coney Island housing project built by Donald Trump's father. Margulies was exposed early to the theatre. His father, a wallpaper salesman, played show tunes on the family hi-fi every Saturday, and despite a limited income, often took his children to Manhattan to attend Broadway plays and musicals.
Margulies studied visual arts at the Pratt Institute, before transferring to the State University of New York to pursue a degree in playwriting. During the early 80s, he collaborated with Joseph Papp, and his first Off-Broadway play, Found a Peanut, was produced at the Public Theatre. In 1983, he moved with his wife, Lynn Street, to New Haven, Connecticut, so that she could attend Yale Medical School.
Margulies has received numerous awards throughout his career. In 2005, he was honored by the American Academy of Arts and Letters with an Award in Literature, and was the recipient of the 2000 Sidney Kingsley Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Theater by a Playwright, and the 2014 PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater, American Playwright in Mid-Career Award. Along the way Margulies also won a Lucille Lortel Award, two American Theater Critics New Play Citations, two Los Angeles Drama Critics Awards, two OBIE Awards (for Sight Unseen and The Model Apartment), one Tony Award nomination (for Time Stands Still), one L.A. Ovation Award (for The Country House), two Dramatists’ Guild Hull-Warriner Awards, five Drama Desk Award nominations, five Burns Mantle Best Play citations, two Pulitzer Prize nominations (for Sight Unseen and Collected Stories) and the Pulitzer Prize (for Dinner With Friends). His other plays include Brooklyn Boy, The Loman Family Picnic, What’s Wrong With This Picture?, Found A Peanut, God Of Vengeance, Coney Island Christmas, and Shipwrecked! An Entertainment – The Amazing Adventures Of Louis De Rougemont (As Told By Himself).
The film of his screenplay, The End of the Tour, will premiere at Sundance Film Festival in 2015. Additional Margulies projects include the book of a new musical of Father of the Bride, for Disney Theatricals.
Mr. Margulies has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, The New York Foundation for the Arts, and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. He is an alumnus of New Dramatists, serves on the council of The Dramatists Guild of America, and is an adjunct professor of English and Theatre Studies at Yale University.
His plays have premiered at Manhattan Theatre Club, South Coast Repertory, The New York Shakespeare Festival and the Jewish Repertory Theatre; and are performed regularly at major theatres across the United States and around the world.
Margulies now joins a select roster of world-renowned playwrights who have traveled to the Inge Festival to receive the William Inge Distinguished Achievement in the American Theater Award. This select company includes Arthur Miller, Stephen Sondheim, Edward Albee, Wendy Wasserstein, David Henry Hwang, Tina Howe, August Wilson, and Neil Simon, to name only a few. Upon being notified of this recognition, Margulies said, “I am delighted to receive this career-affirming honor and humbled to find myself in such distinguished company.”
“Donald Margulies has delivered a consistently excellent body of work, with humor and punch, in one of the most distinctive voices of the American theater.” said Karen Carpenter, Interim Artistic Director of the Inge Center. “Margulies’ ability to excavate both comedy and pathos, in writing about the struggle to belong, to sustain relationships, to find one’s purpose in life, has made a lasting impact,” Carpenter said, “and shown us that the heartbreak life gives us can be transforming.”
His latest play, The Country House, premiered on Broadway this season, and will receive a reading on Friday, April 17, 2015, at 7:30 p.m. in the William Inge Theater. While at the Inge Festival, Margulies will also present a Master Class in Playwrighting.
About the William Inge Theatre Festival
Plunge into three extraordinary days overflowing with live performances, workshops, panels, discussions, tributes, parties and great food. Sit in on master classes with Broadway veterans, thrill to terrific classic and contemporary plays, and join theater buffs nationwide in saluting the best sages of the stage!
For three decades, some of our nation’s brightest stars have met in writer William Inge’s hometown to celebrate the best in American theater. Since 1982, the small prairie town of Independence, Kansas has welcomed theatrical giants such as Arthur Miller, Neil Simon, August Wilson, Wendy Wasserstein, and Stephen Sondheim. Enjoy theater as experienced no place else! The Inge Festival is the Official Theatre Festival of the State of Kansas.
About William Inge
William Motter Inge (1913-1973)
Born in Independence on May 3, 1913, he was the second son of Luther Clay Inge and Maude Sarah Gibson-Inge, and the youngest of five children. Independence had a profound influence on the young Inge and he would later attribute his understanding of human behavior to growing up in this small town.
In 1930, Inge graduated from Independence High School and went on to attend Independence Junior College (now Independence Community College,) graduated from The University of Kansas, and George Peabody College for Teachers, in Nashville, Tennessee.
In 1937-38, Inge taught high school English and Drama in Columbus, Kansas and from 1938-1943, was a member of the faculty at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri. In 1943, he moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where he worked as the drama and music critic for the St. Louis Times. It was while he worked as a drama critic that Inge became acquainted with Tennessee Williams and accompanied him to a performance of his play The Glass Menagerie in Chicago. Within three months he had completed Farther Off From Heaven, which was produced by Margo Jones in Dallas. Inge returned to a teaching position at Washington University in St. Louis and began serious work on turning a fragmentary short story into a one act play. This work evolved into a play that earned Inge the title of most promising playwright of the 1950 Broadway season. The play was Come Back, Little Sheba. In 1952, Paramount Pictures released the film version of Come Back, Little Sheba, directed by Daniel Mann, and starring Shirley Booth and Burt Lancaster.
In 1953, Picnic opened at The Music Box Theatre in New York City, and won Inge a Pulitzer Prize, The Drama Critic Circle Award, The Outer Circle Award, and The Theatre Club Award. In 1956, Columbia Picures released the film version of Picnic, directed by Joshua Logan and starring William Holden, Kim Novak and Rosalind Russell.
Inge’s next success came in 1955 when Bus Stop opened at The Music Box Theatre in New York City. Directed by Joshua Logan, the film version of Bus Stop was released by Fox in 1956 with Marilyn Monroe, Don Murray and Eileen Heckart, in starring roles.
The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, a reworking of his first play, Farther Off From Heaven, opened on Broadway in 1957. The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, considered to be Inge’s finest play, is the one in which he draws most directly from his past. It was released as a film starring Dorothy McGuire, Robert Preston, Shirley Knight, Eve Arden, and Angela Lansbury, in 1960.
In 1959, A Loss of Roses opened to poor reviews and closed after a three week run. In 1960, Inge's first screenplay, Splendor in the Grass, was filmed in New York. It starred Natalie Wood, Pat Hingle and newcomer Warren Beatty. It also featured the only screen appearance of Inge himself, who played the part of Reverend Whitman. Splendor in the Grass was a triumph for Inge and won him an Academy Award for Best Screenplay.
His next two plays were Natural Affection in 1963 and Where's Daddy? in 1965. Both were unsuccessful. This prompted him to leave New York in 1963 at the age of fifty and move to California. Off the Main Road was produced in 1964, as a teleplay on Bob Hope's Chrysler Theater television show. In 1968-70, he resumed his teaching career at the University of California at Irvine. In his remaining years he published two novels: “Good Luck, Miss Wyckoff” (1970)and “My Son Is a Splendid Driver” (1971).