When the playwright Donald Margulies was 11 years old, in the mid-Sixties, he saw a television broadcast of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. There was a shock of recognition. It felt to him like an uncanny reflection of his own life in Brooklyn as the son of lower middle-class Jews who had been raised during the Depression. In the fate of Willy Loman, he discerned what could easily happen to his own father, a taciturn, unbookish man who often worked seven days a week, 16 hours a day, selling wallpaper in a store on Flatbush Avenue.
Most bright boys in Margulies's position would have experienced the same mixture of emotions on encountering Miller's play: acute discomfort tempered with exhilaration at the resounding proof that they were not alone in their feelings. What makes Margulies special, though, is the spirited way he addressed the pain of this episode by deflecting it into parody. He responded by writing an upbeat musical version called Willy! in which the dismal Lomans found themselves translated to a genre that overdoses on peppy optimism and demands happy endings.
This enterprise was a precocious example of Margulies's talent for displacing and fantasticating the injuries of family life, so that an audience's sense of the hurt is heightened. In his play, What's Wrong With This Picture?, he put a fresh perspective on the grieving process via a zany situation in which the recently deceased Jewish mother returned from the grave to carry on with the habits of a lifetime: house cleaning, furniture arranging. The Loman Family Picnic, about a family brought to boiling point by the older son's bar mitzvah, powerfully evoked the pressures that make the play eventually burst into a grotesquely chirpy "musicalisation" of Salesman.
Margulies's preoccupation with the parent-child relationship has continued in less autobiographical pieces, such as The Model Apartment, a phantasmagoria that is partly about the difficulty (for their offspring) of surviving Holocaust survivors. Collected Stories – the only one of his plays to be produced in London before now, with Helen Mirren in the lead – homed in on the mentor-protégé bond and the angry distress of a Jewish creative-writing professor when her prize pupil turns out to have purloined the teacher's most private experiences for a novel.
Tomorrow night at Hampstead Theatre, there's the English premiere of Dinner With Friends, the play that landed Margulies a recent Pulitzer Prize. It focuses on two couples in their forties and follows what happens to their long-standing friendship when one of the men walks out on his wife and family for another woman. The piece has evidently struck a chord around the world (it had a successful nine-month run in Paris) and I asked Margulies – a neat, precise and engagingly courteous man – how he accounts for this: "I think that the play somehow gives voice to the baby-boom generation at their stage in life now, particularly the men of this generation who are post-feminist and analysed – men who really had no role models and find themselves in their forties suffering a kind of existential malaise that often results in them leaving their families. And I think it was my observing a succession of marriages collapse round me and my wife that made me want to really get inside the head of men who leave and understand that malaise a little better."
A shrewd, funny four-hander structured round a central flashback, Dinner With Friends is less about Beth and Tom, the couple who break up and find new partners, than about the impact of the split on the outwardly excellent marriage of their friends, Gabe and Karen. Why has Margulies made this latter pair food writers? "I was looking for a profession that the two of them could do together and I wanted it to be something that was emblematic of their interest in domesticity. I've been struck by the prevalence of food and food preparation in the daily lives of middle-class people now, where it's become a kind of aesthetic nourishment as well."
This aspect is gently guyed in the play where, even in the darkest hours of guts-out-on-the-table self-justification, Beth and Tom can still be distracted and reduced to appreciative orgasms by the lemon-almond-polenta cake the food writers have whisked up from a recipe acquired on a recent trip to Italy. And the fact that Gabe and Karen's controlling hospitality puts them in the quasi-parental role in this foursome gives the others, who are entering a kind of second adolescence, something conveniently close to home to rebel against. Like many women of her generation, Karen had rejected her parents and tried to construct a substitute family from her friends. That dream unravels in the play. "Congratulations," cries a vindictive Beth, who, to Karen's dismay, quickly heads into another relationship, "the family you've chosen is just as fucked up and fallible as the one you were born into."
The family Margulies was born into has provided him with a rich seam of material. What's Wrong With This Picture? "was inspired by a dream that I had after my mother's death in which she came home from the grave in a shroud covered with mud and said 'Look, I don't even want to talk about it. I just gotta jump in the shower'". Translating that dream into a scenario that's like a Neil Simon comedy after a booster jab of genuine mordancy creates a blackly hilarious metaphor for our reluctance to let the dead go. It was only after his father's death that he was able to write a piece like The Loman Family Picnic with its unnerving portrait of a breadwinner at breaking point, a man still haunted by the Depression who goes through every day with his eyes tight shut and his breath held until he can go back to a home where he has been reduced to a sort of resident absentee: "What kind of home is left to come home to by the time I come home?"
Margulies did, however, let his father, whose reading was normally confined to the tabloids, read the near-the-knuckle semi-autobiographical What's Wrong With This Picture?. "He said: 'It's a good play,' but he never went to see it. It was a gift in a way that he deemed it good, while deciding for himself that reading it was sufficient. I think it was a very generous response."
Margulies is currently at work on a screen treatment for Paramount of the story of Bruno Grosjean, the Swiss-German writer, who, under the name Binjamin Wilkomirski, fooled the world with his book Fragments, the alleged testimony of an early childhood of unspeakable torment in the Majdanek and Birkenau camps. Margulies is astute casting for this job, because his work is highly alert to the ways in which people nowadays seek to validate themselves by appropriating suffering. In The Model Apartment, even Lola, a survivor of Belsen now embarking on retirement in a Florida condo, feels the need to claim that she was Anne Frank's special friend in the camp and that she featured as the heroine of another secret diary that went up in flames. It's a saga she has clearly re-counted to her family, with elaborations, many times until what is conceivably true can't be disentangled from what is a grasping for glory.
"The Wilkomirski story seems to crystallise so many of the themes that have interested me," says Margulies. "Part of it involves a man in Israel who saw Wilkomirski on television and decided that this man was the little son he had lost in the war. They even underwent DNA testing which proved that they were not related, but that didn't seem to matter. In other words, what interests so much about it is not only the hoax but the investment we have in our culture of victimhood. I mean, in the case of Wilkomirski, it's really a heartbreaking story of a displaced boy who was shunted round the Swiss child-welfare authorities. His outcast mother tries and failed to hold onto the boy who was repeatedly given up to foster parents. So he went through his own kind of horror, but it's the fact that in order to feel the sympathy of the world for what he endured, he had to appropriate the Überhorror. Nothing less would do." An excellent subject would seem to have found, in Margulies, its ideal author.
'Dinner with Friends' opens at the Hampstead Theatre (020-7722 9301) tomorrowReuse content