The Brooklyn-born playwright, who has made New Haven his home for the past 30 years, was having trouble moving forward on a script he was writing. Margulies decided it was time to clear his head. He took out his spiral Japanese notebook, and, without knowing where it would lead, wrote two words: "A loft."
"Then I began to ask questions such as 'Who lives here?' " said the 58-year-old playwright over a recent luncheon interview at a New Haven cafe. "I imagined that a photographer lived on the loft. Then I thought, 'What if it was a woman photographer and what if she covers conflict and what if she's been injured covering conflict and is returning home?' By the time I reached Grand Central Terminal I had already the setting, the characters and had even cast it."
The play premiered at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles before making it to Broadway in 2010 in a production that starred Laura Linney, who received a Tony Award nomination along with Margulies for best play. Also in the cast were Brian d'Arcy James, Eric Bogosian and Alicia Silverstone. Daniel Sullivan, Margulies' frequent collaborator, directed. It has since been one of the most produced plays in regional theaters. The TheaterWorks' production, staged by artistic director Rob Ruggiero is its Connecticut's bow. It features Erika Rolfsrud, Tim Altmeyer, Matthew Boston and Liz Holtan.
At first glance it might seem like a play brimming with au courant issues: returning war wounded, the responsibility of journalists, the mess in the Mideast.
But at the play's center is the subject that is a large part of Margulies work: Marriage.
The show could be seen as the third four-character play in what could be described as his "relationship trilogy" that includes "Sight Unseen" and his Pulitzer Prize-winning "Dinner with Friends."
"It's a love story more than it is any expose about modern journalism. That just happens to be the setting and the world of these people."
At the play's beginning James is easing Sarah's arrival home into their loft apartment in Brooklyn. Sarah had recently been horribly injured and defaced while covering Iraq. James, a journalist, had also felt the wounds of war, suffering a breakdown there and returning to the U.S. — before Sarah's accident.
Their uneasy relationship is in contrast to their good friend Richard — Sarah's former lover and mentor, who is also a photo editor at a magazine — and his new and much younger girlfriend and their happiness.
As Charles Isherwood writes in the New York Times: "The new play explores the relationship between two couples at a crucial juncture in their lives, when their desire to move forward clashes with the instinct to stay comfortably — or even uncomfortably — in place."
Another theme also threads itself in this and other of Margulies plays: The role of the artist-observer and the conundrum in finding him or herself isolated from others
"It's something that's always interested me. In [the 2005 play] 'Brooklyn Boy' Eric [the novelist-protagonist] goes home to Brooklyn and encounters a childhood friend who is very ambivalent about his having been used by Eric in the novel that catapulted him to fame. His friend both loves that he's been immortalized this way but also feels violated and exploited."
The same theme echoes in "Collected Stories," "Sight Unseen" and again in "Time Stands Still."
"I've had a very long career — more than 30 years— and these things occur even without my being aware of it," says Margulies. " Many of my protagonists are artists in one form or another, whether it's Sarah in "Time Stands Still" or Jonathan who is an artist in "Sight Unseen" or Eric in "Brooklyn Boy." ' It seems to be a role I'm drawn to over and over again. How do you reconcile your role of the observer/chronicler with being a moral citizen at the same time?"
Margulies also has two major revivals slated for the 2013-14 off-Broadway season: "The Model Apartment" goes into rehearsal at the end of August at Primary Stages, the theater that originally produced it 18 years ago. It will be directed by Evan Cabnet, who staged Margulies' "Shipwrecked! An Entertainment: The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told By Himself)" at New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre several seasons back. The play centers on two Holocaust survivors who embark on what they hope will be a peaceful retirement in Florida. Margulies said in an earlier interview that the play is about "the legacies that parents instill in their children."
At the beginning of the year, the Roundabout Theatre Company also will produce a revival of his "Dinner with Friends" at the Laura Pels Theatre, directed by Pam MacKinnon, who earned a Tony Award for her staging of last season's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf."
Last month Margulies was at Williamstown Theatre Festival in the Massachusetts Berkshires working on his new play, "The Country House," which is set in Williamstown. It will first have its premiere at the Geffen Playhouse and then play at New York's Manhattan Theatre Club — Margulies' Manhattan artistic home for decades — for the 2014-15 season. Sullivan will direct the new work.
"It's my Chekhovian pastoral," he says. "It's centered on a contemporary theatrical family who has summered for 40 years in Williamstown and I'm really proud of it. It's a pastiche of Chekhovian archetypes with my own resonance.
He is working on the book of his first Broadway-bound musical based on the film, "Father of the Bride" for Disney Theatricals. Joshua Schmidt (off-Broadway's "The Adding Machine") is the composer on the project with lyrics by Michael Korie (Broadway's "Grey Gardens") and direction by Bartlett Sher (Broadway's "The Light in the Piazza"). The show is currently "in development."
"The very process of being in a room with other people is new to me," he says.. "It still requires some adjustment.:"
Also on tap — and still in development — is his adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides' 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "Middlesex" into a five-hour mini-series for HBO. There is also another film project in the works that he said was premature to discuss.
After three decades in the Elm City, is there a New Haven play in his future?
"Well, 'Dinner With Friends' is set in Connecticut though not specifically in my home here," he says. "And in 'The Country House' the young woman is a Yale student who gets a ride from New Haven to Williamstown. But there may be. I don't know. But New Haven is definitely part of my writing world.
"I think the decision to build a life here — and not New York — [with his physician-wife Lynn Street and son Miles, 21, now in college] was a really seminal and very smart choice. My social circle is not just theater people. It's much more eclectic, more academic, with friends with a wide range of occupations and interests. I think it's been very good for me. New Haven has been a very good place in which to work."
"TIME STANDS STILL'' is in previews and opens Friday, Aug. 16 at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St. in Hartford. The show runs through Sept. 15. Performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $50 to $63. Pay what you can Wednesday is on Aug. 14. Student rush tickets are $17. Seniors pay $35 at Saturday matinees. Information: 860-527-7838 and www.theaterworkshartford.org.