Since 'Unseen,' a Higher Visibility : Theater: Donald Margulies has been busy following the success of his hit for SCR in '91. His 'Collected Stories' gets a reading Monday.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ever since South Coast Repertory commissioned and launched "Sight Unseen," which was subsequently nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in drama, Donald Margulies has seen his career take off.

The play's success on the SCR Second Stage in 1991, followed by a smash-hit production at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York, boosted him into the sort of high-flying orbit that few serious playwrights reach these days.

"Sight Unseen" was transferred to a commercial house off-Broadway, ran there for seven months and became the second-most-popular new American play of the 1993-94 season. Only David Mamet's "Oleana" had more productions at professional resident theaters across the country.

"One of the benefits of that success," says Margulies, whose latest SCR-commissioned work, "Collected Stories," will get a staged reading Monday night at the Costa Mesa theater, "was that suddenly there was renewed interest in my earlier plays."

Even Broadway producers came calling, though Broadway long ago lost its reputation as a place for anything but musicals.

One of those earlier Margulies plays--"What's Wrong With This Picture?" from 1985--opened last year at the large, venerable Brooks Atkinson Theatre with hot director Joe Montello directing and a cast led by Tony Award-winner Faith Prince.

Making it to the Atkinson, however, turned out to be "a dubious achievement," the 41-year-old playwright said in a recent interview from his home in New Haven, Conn., where he teaches playwriting at the Yale School of Drama and lives with his wife and 3 1/2-year-old son.

"The production didn't work. Simply didn't jell. A lot of things look good on paper. And some things that don't look good on paper somehow work miraculously. The really painful thing about that debacle was to see a play that had been well-regarded suddenly disregarded."

Which makes Margulies all the more pleased to be returning to the SCR launching pad with a play that he considers "a logical successor" to "Sight Unseen."

"Collected Stories" is a two-character piece, he said, "involving the relationship between an older woman writer who teaches fiction and her young female protege." "Sight Unseen" is about the travails of a famous painter.

"It deals with the further education of the artist," Margulies said, adding that the main focus this time is "the mentor-protege relationship" and "the issue of intellectual property."

Moreover, "Collected Stories" continues to explore themes that have always occupied him, he said: "storytelling and memory and memory and experience and how they are translated into art."

Margulies also has "a bunch of other plays in the works," including a work for the Actors Theater of Louisville, which commissioned a one-hour play from him for its 1995 Humana Festival.

"I'm a writer who accepts commissions because I find it a symbolic, not really an economic, boost," he noted. "It means somebody cares. So now I have several commitments I need to fulfill."

One is for the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, which has asked him to write a companion piece to the Louisville work in the hope that it might serve as a curtain-raiser to fill out an evening of theater. "I hope when I submit the piece to the Taper it will be on the board for next season."

Margulies is also working on an adaptation of a Yiddish classic by Sholem Asch, "God of Vengeance," for the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, a major regional company. The original, written by Asch in 1906, was very controversial and very successful during the 1920s.

Censors nearly shut it down, Margulies noted, "because it told the story of a Jewish procurer in a brothel and his efforts to keep his adolescent daughter away from the life. It's a dark, edgy, fascinating play. But it's currently in a kind of clunky form. Once I do my rather free adaptation, I hope it will have a new life."

Meanwhile, he is looking forward later this month to the publication of "Sight Unseen and Other Plays," a collection being brought out by the Theater Communications Guild. In addition to the title play, it will have "What's Wrong With This Picture?," "The Model Apartment," "The Loman Family Picnic" and "Found a Peanut."

"It's sort of what I've done over the last 10 years in terms of plays," Margulies said. "I think it represents a good first volume of my work. 'Collected Stories' would be the first play in the second volume."

At the same time, he makes his real living from screenplays--albeit unproduced. He says he has written "eight or nine" for various studios, including an adaptation of "Sight Unseen."

"That was optioned by HBO. But they never produced it, and their option ran out."

Another of his unproduced screenplays is "Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot," based on the life of quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan and written for Robin Williams at Tristar. "Who knows? It may yet get made."

Now Margulies has also finished a feature for Touchstone, "Widows," based on a British television miniseries. "We'll see what the fate of that is." He's not holding his breath. And given a choice, he'd rather make his living on plays.

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"Collected Stories" will receive a staged reading, followed by a discussion with the playwright, Monday at 7:30 p.m. in the NewSCRipt Series at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. $7. (714) 957-4033.

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