Playwright Margulies sails ‘Ship’

South Coast Repertory theater to host play

COSTA MESA, Calif. — In many ways, there’s nothing surprising in the fact that playwright Donald Margulies is launching his latest world preem — the first of two in Los Angeles this season — at South Coast Repertory Theater.

Over its 44-year history, the Orange County legit org has forged a reputation for developing new work, thanks in part to the successful preems of Margulies plays.

But whereas most of Margulies’ stories — including “Dinner With Friends,” for which the writer won the 2000 Pulitzer — quietly explore the malaise of literate, contemporary adults, his latest SCR show, “Shipwrecked!” is blatant fabulism, centering on a real-life 19th century eccentric named Louis de Rougemont who details his (entirely bogus) South Sea adventures.

Plus, the show started out aimed at kids.

Margulies has had a long relationship with SCR, where he has debuted plays “Sight Unseen,” “Collected Stories” and “Brooklyn Boy,” which had a Broadway stint in 2005.

He isn’t the only legit scribe for whom SCR has proved a valuable launch pad for new work.

Since it began in 1998, the annual Pacific Playwrights Fest has provided a showcase for scripts from a wide array of writers, from Richard Greenberg to Sarah Ruhl to Jose Rivera to David Lindsay-Abaire, whose fest vet “Rabbit Hole” won the 2007 Pulitzer.

The theater also has staged world-preem productions of shows that include Greenberg’s “The Violet Hour,” Lynn Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel” and Rolin Jones’ “The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow.” All three of those plays went on to high-profile stints in Gotham.

“Shipwrecked!” was originally conceived as a large-cast spectacle when commissioned for SCR’s Young Audiences series. Since then, it has both expanded and contracted during the development process.

The play will preem Sept. 29 as an old-time platform entertainment with one actor — Gregory Itzin (“24”) — playing Louis, and just two thesps assuming all other roles from spouse to dog.

Private readings persuaded the scribe that the play “was far too sophisticated for very young kids,” Margulies says. A staged reading wowed the crowd at the playwrights fest in May, confirming “it’s a wonderful story that should be accessible to all ages,” he continues.

Full title “Shipwrecked! An Entertainment — The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told by Himself)” is meant to convey “an air of storytelling hyperbole, like a handbill from a traveling show of its era,” Margulies says.

Margulies was inspired by James Frey’s memoir, “A Million Little Pieces,” with its Oprah-orchestrated rise and fall, to create, as he says, “a metaphor of how we anoint and discard celebrities. Louis convinced people his mythology was true, then was derided in public. He’s the Ancient Mariner whose fate is to tell his story forever.”

Fest reception, says helmer Bart DeLorenzo, revealed the audience’s hunger for direct narrative. “The fourth wall was completely removed, open and interactive, and they got it. We all were taken aback by the reaction, and South Coast decided it was a ‘must-do.’ ”

Biggest question is whether tech elements will overwhelm a piece celebrating pure imagination. “We’ll keep cutting back,” DeLorenzo promises, and Margulies avers, “If anything gets in the way of the text, we’ll tone it down or get rid of it.”

Like “Brooklyn Boy,” also an SCR commission that first appeared in its Pacific Playwrights Fest, “Shipwrecked!” will set sail for a future life after SCR, making landfall at the Long Wharf in New Haven, Conn., in February with a new cast and helmer.

Margulies, however, is already thinking about the June opening at the Geffen Playhouse of his other new play, “The Elephant in the Room,” in which a war-wounded photojournalist re-adjusts to everyday life.

They may seem wildly different stories, but both “Shipwrecked!” and “Elephant,” he says, “examine the role of the artist in society. What’s the purpose of creativity? What’s its product and who owns the experience?”

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