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Brooklyn Boy

Donald Margulies has an unerring sense of language and the ability to penetrate deeply into the darkness of tangled human emotions. The Broadway-bound SCR world premiere "Brooklyn Boy" isn't as tightly and cohesively structured as his Pulitzer Prize-winning "Dinner With Friends."

Donald Margulies has an unerring sense of language and the ability to penetrate deeply into the darkness of tangled human emotions. The Broadway-bound SCR world premiere “Brooklyn Boy” isn’t as tightly and cohesively structured as his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Dinner With Friends.” What it offers in abundance are insightful lines and episodes that produce a shock of recognition.

Michael Roth’s melancholy, cello-driven music sets a strong opening mood, but the first, protracted scene between bestselling author Eric (Adam Arkin) and his dying father, Manny (Allan Miller), doesn’t quite come to life. Although Margulies has written some witty zingers, and Miller delivers them skillfully, Manny is such a relentlessly insensitive character that Eric’s attempts to win his love and approval seem both hopeless and exasperating.

The core of the story is first sharply evident when Eric encounters a childhood pal, Ira (Arye Gross), in the hospital cafeteria. Arkin’s Eric is often passive and befuddled, as well as naive for his age, and Gross’ superbly spirited portrait of Ira prods Eric into animated responses. Ira embodies every childhood friend who is discarded when a boyhood buddy achieves fame and leaves the old neighborhood behind.

Ira at first praises Eric’s book, then gradually reveals his ambivalence and resentment by saying his mother hated it. Gross is brilliant when insisting Eric has based a main character on him. After Eric denies it, he cites the “acne on the back, the undescended testicle” as specific details to prove his point.

The Arkin/Gross episode is a compact little masterpiece, and a subsequent scene with Eric’s ex-wife, Nina (Dana Reeve), also is absorbing. The conflict between a hit author and his creatively frustrated spouse, heightened by Ralph Funicello’s stainless-steel refrigerator and table and bare walls, is coldly compelling, although it’s difficult to believe this couple ever connected emotionally or sexually.

Reeve brings neurotic energy to the role, and when she says, “Every time I see you, I’m reminded of all the things I failed at,” she dramatically delineates the fatal weakness in their relationship.

The scenes in general could be trimmed, and there’s an overall episodic quality that reduces impact until the next confrontation reinvigorates tension.

Reeve’s Nina is a character we hate to lose. Fortunately, she’s replaced by Alison (Ari Graynor), a young college student who expresses fear that she will become one more assistant ordering Chinese chicken salad for an “asshole producer,” rather than becoming the asshole producer herself. As a potential one-night stand whom Eric takes to his hotel room after she attends one of his book signings, Graynor has the production’s best line, “Fiction is SO over!” and turns him off with her comment about books in general: “I really respect people who still bother to write them.”

Graynor’s Alison easily could have become a caricature, but in the capable hands of director Daniel Sullivan she emerges as a distinctive, attractively edgy personality. She adds the evening’s sole exhibition of sexuality, and her pain when Eric rejects her is the most moving moment in the production.

Margulies perceptively points out that most people close to famous artists — wives, friends, parents — begrudge them their success. Sometimes the sabotage is under the guise of helpfulness, as in an amusing sequence that pits Eric against a studio executive (comedically cutting Mimi Lieber) who asks for a few tweaks — pronouncing the script “a touch too ethnic” and going on to wreck the predominantly Jewish flavor by suggesting, of principal character Seth Bernstein, “Does he have to be Jewish? Couldn’t he be black?”

Kevin Isola contributes an original punch as the WASPy hero of a TV show, “Outlaw Billy,” who covets the “Brooklyn Boy” title part because it will enable him to play against type.

Although the father-son conflict is frequently referred to, it comes across as self-pitying and a plot contrivance.

Story’s conclusion — in which Eric talks to his now-deceased dad and resolves their differences in a fantasy discussion that enables him to reclaim the Jewish roots he abandoned — has an implausible ring. This facile summing-up is overshadowed by a gallery of colorful characterizations.

In the end, what resonates most is Gross’ gut-wrenching study of a bewildered Willy Loman, who desperately tries to understand why his friend made it and he was sentenced to forever be the owner of a Brooklyn delicatessen.

Brooklyn Boy

Brooklyn Boy

South Coast Repertory, Segerstrom Stage; 507 seats; $56 top

  • Production: A South Coast Repertory presentation in association with Manhattan Theater Club of a play in two acts by Donald Margulies. Directed by Daniel Sullivan.
  • Crew: Sets, Ralph Funicello; costumes, Jess Goldstein; lighting, Chris Parry; music and sound, Michael Roth; stage manager, Scott Harrison. Opened and reviewed Sept. 11, 2004; runs through Oct. 10. Running time: <B>2 HOURS, 20 MIN</B>.
  • Cast: Eric Weiss - Adam Arkin Manny Weiss - Allan Miller Ira Zimmer - Arye Gross Nina - Dana Reeve Alison - Ari Graynor Melanie Fine - Mimi Lieber Tyler Shaw - Kevin Isola