Directed by Dan Sullivan, a frequent collaborator with Margulies since directing the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Dinner With Friends" in 1998, "Time Stands Still," is yet another of this philosophical dramatist's attempts to grapple with issues of moral uncertainty looming at the intersection of art and society. It premieres at the Geffen Playhouse this week.
"This is not an Iraq play," Margulies says on a day at the Geffen when the actors are first digging their way into the text, seated at a table with Margulies and Sullivan as the play is read aloud.
"I would like to dispel the notion that it is a political play; it's really a love story," he says during a break for lunch. "Yes, there are ideas in it, but my plays are not about the ideas but about the people. It's the story of James and Sarah, and what they've been through together and what their lives are like."
Most American playwrights, even the successful ones, do not earn a living writing plays, as the economics of the theater push them ever closer toward the status of poets. It's reason for despair and long faces, but Margulies remains a soberly upbeat character, pensive in conversation but thankful for the audience he has built and the honors and commissions that have come his way. That has allowed him to pursue his plays of ideas, inhabited by, if not the ruling class, then by the trend-setting, media-savvy class, distilling "conversations we have had but that I haven't seen on the stage before," as he puts it.
In his new work, James (David Harbour) is a principled war correspondent recovering from a breakdown occasioned by an overexposure to the misery and gore of armed conflict. Sarah (Anna Gunn), his injured lover, begins to question the ethics of her profession as she recuperates from the explosion that killed the Iraqi driver with whom she happened to be having an affair.
"The germ of the play," Margulies says, "was an image I had of a loft apartment, and I began to speculate about who lives here, and I thought, what if it was a photographer? And what if it was a female photojournalist and she's just come back from the war? And what if she's been hurt? That's really where it began."
Another couple, the senior photo editor of a publication that might be the New York Times Magazine (played by Robin Thomas) and his perky event-planner girlfriend ( Alicia Silverstone), fill out the cast.
"Frequently I like writing about people who are articulate and whose humor comes out of them and their behavior and not out of humor that is imposed on them," the playwright says, as if keenly aware that his later plays take place in the realms of what is broadly termed the intelligentsia, far from the screech and howl of popular culture.
"My plays often deal with the problem of being an artist," he says, meaning the crises of conscience that afflict creative people reckoning with the moral compromises their work sometimes entails.
In the case of Sarah in "Time Stands Still," it's the growing fear that she has traded successfully on the impoverished victims of war and deprivation -- the subjects who end up in the pages of magazines and in handsome books resting on the coffee tables of Manhattan's affluent elite.
In a twist on the line from Tennessee Williams' Blanche DuBois, Sarah at one point tells James, "I live off the suffering of strangers. I built a career, a reputation, on the sorrows of people I don't know and will never see again."
For his part, James has retreated from the horrors of the battlefield into the comfort of analyzing horror films for a webzine back home, finding solace under the protection of American cultural ironies. So it is that the spiritual paths of these journalists diverge amid the provocative arguments one can expect in a Margulies play.
"I like Donald's serious heart as a writer," says Sullivan. "And this is a serious work. I think much of it is about the impact of the choices made by the press, but it's really a love story, and that supersedes everything else."
"It's what photography does, it captures and freezes time," Margulies says about the title. "I thought it a euphonious title. It seemed appropriate.
"When I say that the play deals with the morality of photojournalism, I didn't know that I was writing a play about that. But it emerged in the writing, and then I discovered it was a theme. But that's true of everything I've written. It's not like I have a checklist of themes. It's exciting to me, it's why I continue to do this; I'm always making discoveries like that."
Margulies, who grew up in Brooklyn and lives in New Haven, Conn., where he teaches a course in playwriting at Yale, has a long history with Southern California. His early play "The Model Apartment" had its world premiere at the Los Angeles Theatre Center in 1988 (and wasn't done in New York until 1995, when it won an Obie). South Coast Repertory commissioned "Sight Unseen" in 1990 and later "Collected Stories" and gave both those plays their world premieres before they went on to success in New York and elsewhere. (South Coast is reviving "Collected Stories" this spring.) SCR also commissioned "Shipwrecked," which was later done at the Geffen, which commissioned "Time Stands Still."
Given that he also gets regular work writing for Hollywood (most of it unproduced, including a Keith Moon biopic for Mike Myers), you might think Margulies has reason to have a second home here. But, in fact, he stays with playwright and old friend Jane Anderson and her spouse, Tess Ayers, when he comes to town. He looks quizzical when asked if he feels a strong connection to the West Coast. "I don't feel like I'm part of any community here. I have friends . . . . "