“Best said, it’s a little comedy about death.” That’s how Donald Margulies described WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE PICTURE? to the LA Times in 1988, when we produced it at the Back Alley. Inspired by a dream Donald had about his own mother who died when he was a teenager, here’s the plot: a Brooklyn housewife has died and all the relatives are sitting shiva when the dead woman, Shirley, suddenly returns home. As Variety said, “Though Margulies never makes it clear whether Shirley is merely an apparition, it is implicit she’s not the Shirley her family knew prior to her demise—no, she is an ideal Shirley as seen through each mourning family member’s eyes.” LA Weekly called it a very Jewish ‘Blythe Spirit’ that’s full of surprises.

The play was originally staged in 1985 at the Manhattan Theatre Club, where Claudia Weill directed Bob Dishy, Madeline Kahn, and Florence Stanley, but things didn’t go well even with this stellar cast. The play closed after two weeks without being reviewed. Donald did some rewriting at the Playwrights Conference at Sundance, and we staged it with Stuart Damon (of ‘General Hospital fame) directing Phoebe Dorin as the dead mom, Allan as her husband, James Stern as their son, Sandy Kenyon and Lillian Adams as the grandparents, and Patty Deutsch as the aunt.

Reviews were mostly good/mixed—the LA Times thought it had great scenes in search of a play– but audiences found enough universal truth to let us extend the run. Variety said that audiences, “are certain to recognize familial pain and manipulation that transcends the Jewish experience…Each family member is an adept practitioner of reverse guilt.”

Donald was the only playwright we produced twice at the Back Alley and had the theatre continued we would have been his producing home for as long as he wanted. After the Back Alley closed, Donald went on to bigger west coast homes, with frequent productions at the Geffen Playhouse and South Coast Rep, and then went on to receive the Pulitzer Prize for ‘Dinner with Friends’ in 2000.

Artistic things came full circle when South Coast Rep and the Manhattan Theatre Club co-produced Donald’s play ‘Brooklyn Boy’ in 2004-5 and Allan was cast as Adam Arkin’s father. Ben Brantley in the NY Times noted that a key theme in Donald’s work, the “fractious, divided family,” that was “summoned in recollection in ‘Brooklyn Boy,’ has been anticipated in ‘The Loman Family Picnic’ and ‘What’s Wrong with This Picture?‘“

Sitting in the dark in the last row of the empty Biltmore Theatre on Broadway watching Allan in a run-through of ‘Brooklyn Boy,’ kibitzing with Donald, felt like home.

–Laura Zucker