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Tale Wind Donald Margulies adopts a fresh style to tell a sweeping story in “Shipwrecked! An Entertainment.”
Seasoned theatregoers know a Donald Margulies play when they see it: smart, contemporary, often bitterly funny, crackling with intertwining conflicts over love, money and/or creative passion. In plays like Sight Unseen, Dinner With Friends and Collected Stories, Margulies has carved a niche as a consummate stage realist.

Well, for those who think you have a read on this busy American playwright: Prepare to be swept away by a very different writer. In Shipwrecked! An Entertainment, now playing at Primary Stages, three performers enact a dazzling 19th century adventure tale using the simple magic of the theatre. In tones somewhere between storybook narrator and sideshow barker, a middle-aged charmer named Louis de Rougemont (played by Michael Countryman) unfolds a tale of sailing to a South Seas paradise to dive for pearls, evade monsters of the deep and survive for decades among the natives. Two other actors, Donnetta Lavinia Grays and Jeremy Bobb, not only play all the remaining roles, from a crusty sea captain to a trusty dog, they also create a world of live sound effects that bring the globe-spanning story to life.

There are many twists in store that make the story more than meets the eye, of course—at a certain point, the playwright jokes, the play “turns Margulies-ian.” But what accounts for the change of pace until then?

“It was originally a commission from South Coast Repertory to write something for its Theatre for Young Audiences,” Margulies says of the California-based theatrical powerhouse where many of Richard Greenberg’s plays begin, as well. “I began to think about what I would write for such a venue. I decided that whatever I was going to do I was going to emulate Thornton Wilder, because Our Town is one of the plays I hold dearest to me. I decided I would strip the stage bare and tell a story with as few accoutrements as possible.”

Once he’d decided on a style, Margulies needed a story. While researching a a screenplay about a Holocaust survivor-pretender, he read Sarah Burton’s book Impostors, and discovered the real-life character of Louis de Rougemont, whose colorful exploits delighted and fascinated Victorian readers.  

“Louis was a larger-than-life figure, and I immediately saw him as a theatrical eminence,” Margulies recalls. “The play kind of wrote itself when I figured out that it was going to be Louis telling the story.”

But while Margulies admits the play may look like a departure from his usual aesthetic, he insists, “The seams of the play are very consistent with everything I’ve written. It has resonances with Collected Stories and Sight Unseen. This play, too, has at its center an artist of sorts. He’s a fabulist, and the play deals with the problem of being a creative person. It’s about the persuasive power of storytelling.”

At the same time, Margulies attests, “It gives me an opportunity to celebrate live theatre. It’s a purely theatrical endeavor. It’s not something that would be well-served as a film—the story might make a good film, but not the manner in which it is told.”

As with all good live theatre, its effectiveness depends nearly as much on the audience’s participation as that of the artists.

“That’s one of the gifts of this play, which I’ve seen a few productions of,” Margulies says. “So much of Shipwrecked! depends not only on the imagination of the artists but of theatre audiences. It’s kind of delightful to see how people suspend their disbelief so joyfully.”

And without giving any of the story’s twists away, let’s just say that audience’s trust gets called into question at a certain point.

“Donald has said that he can feel the audience turn,” says Lisa Peterson, who’s directing the play. “It’s as if they’re saying to themselves, ‘I had a feeling he was up to something more.’ ” Peterson points out that some of Margulies’ earlier plays, including Found a Peanut, The Loman Family Picnic and The Model Apartment, which she directed at Primary Stages, were not purely naturalistic. She also speculated that Margulies wrote Shipwrecked! “in part for his son Miles. It’s calling up his love of the theatre, and his own boyishness.”

Not to worry, Margulies fans: His new four-character play about a troubled photojournalist, Time Stands Still, is about to open in Los Angeles, and will no doubt make it to New York soon enough. Till then, though, audiences who climb on board Shipwrecked! are in for a tropical treat. What could be a better balm for a chilly New York winter?

Click here for more information about Shipwrecked! An Entertainment.