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The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright returns to NYC after a five-year absence with a twisty tale of two brothers
Even though Donald Margulies' Long Lost takes place in New York City, a 2015 trip to Tennessee is what inspired him to start writing it. "I received an invitation from the Nashville Repertory Theatre to mentor the playwrights chosen for their Ingram New Works Project," he recalls. "At the end I was to present a work in progress. I told them, 'I would love to do it, but I don't have a new play yet.' And they said, 'Bring whatever you have.'"
Some weeks later, he arrived with the first 20 minutes of Long Lost; now the finished play is having its New York premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club. A taut one-act about the tense reunion between two estranged brothers who've taken very different paths, the show is quintessential Margulies. He's well-known for penning plays that probe the underbelly of close relationships, whether between mentor and protégée (Collected Stories), lovers (Sight Unseen, Tony-nominated Time Stands Still) or longtime pals (his Pulitzer Prize-winning Dinner with Friends). From the moment scraggly stoner Billy (Lee Tergesen) surprises his sibling, well-to-do financial consultant David (Kelly AuCoin), at the office on Christmas Eve, it's clear they're not going to have a happy-go-lucky holiday.
Billy and David's uneasy interactions have the ring of authenticity, but though Margulies does have a brother, this play is in no way autobiographical. The setup is a way for him to subtly explore a variety of issues, including class and ideological divides, the limits of compassion and the nature of truth. "I want the audience's attitudes and sympathies to evolve as the story progresses," says Margulies. "These are complicated characters. It's not just about uncovering lies, it's about revealing layers."
Long Lost is Margulies' first show in New York City since his Chekhovian The Country House ran on Broadway in 2014. While he didn't intend to stay away for so long, there are reasons he took his time. "Although there are always things sort of looming in my innards, it takes me a few years between plays generally," he says. "It's not so much that I don't have the plays to write, it's that I need to earn a living between plays." In addition to teaching at Yale, where his students have included up-and-coming dramatists such as Clare Barron, Anna Ziegler, Sarah DeLappe and Lauren Yee, Margulies works in TV and film. An Andrew Jackson miniseries he was penning "was really hijacking my time," though that project, sadly, fell through.
Another reason for the delay? Margulies wanted to wait for his longtime collaborator, Tony-winning director Daniel Sullivan, who's helmed many of his plays as well as Long Lost's world premiere in Illinois in June 2016. At that point, the show ran more than two hours and was two acts. In the interim, through workshops and readings, the two have honed it to an intermissionless 90 minutes that has political undertones.
"During the process of working on the play, the 2016 presidential election happened and just was an earthquake for most people," Margulies says. "I saw in this story a kind of allegorical potential. Billy and David, for me, began to represent the polar opposites that exist in our nation, at the risk of being utterly pretentious. That gave me new material to play with. My plays are really about relationships, whether they're friendships or families or even one's relationship to one's work. I think the politics in them are inherent but certainly not overt. I'm trying to not be polemical in the least. I want the story to carry people along; they can analyze it after."
Over the past 25 years, Margulies has had a half dozen shows on Broadway, five produced by Manhattan Theatre Club in the company's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Yet he was adamant that MTC mount Lost Long on one of its Off-Broadway stages at City Center. "It's a small play," he says. "I didn't want it to open on Broadway with all of the glare and expectations of a Broadway show." The more intimate venue also lends itself to the narrative's series of revelations, some of which evoke audible gasps from the audience as David, his wife Molly (Annie Parisse) and their college-age son Jeremy (Alex Wolff) have their lives upended by Billy.
"Billy is a force of nature, he's just this tornado," Margulies says. "David calls him 'Hurricane Billy.' I think our country right now is experiencing this chaotic presence and it's there and must be dealt with. You wouldn't believe how many people come up to me after the show saying, 'I have a Billy in my life.' So many people -- whether it's a brother or a cousin or a father or a mother -- have these kinds of taxing relationships that are part of our families. And you can't simply walk away. It's much more encumbered than that."
Top image: Lee Tergesen and Kelly AuCoin in Long Lost. Photo by Joan Marcus.
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