The rewards of success and fame are weighed with poignant complexity against the loss of authenticity and essence in Donald Margulies’ eloquent midlife reflection, which traces a suddenly celebrated writer’s unwitting struggle to reconnect with his past. While its static structure and somewhat mechanical resolution keep “Brooklyn Boy” from being an outstanding play, it is nonetheless a satisfying one, illuminated by sensitivity and humor, by sparkling, naturalistic dialogue and by the grace with which it extends a deeply personal story into a universal realm.
If they were movies, Margulies’ play might complete a double bill with Billy Crystal’s “700 Sundays,” playing three blocks away. There are surface similarities between Crystal’s sentimental journey through remembrances of his parents and his Long Island childhood and the return home of Margulies’ central character, Eric Weiss (Adam Arkin), an author whose every step toward mainstream cultural acceptance has been one away from his roots as a Brooklynite and a Jew.
Unlike Crystal, however, it’s not warm and fuzzy nostalgia Margulies has in mind. Maintaining a coherent thematic line with his previous work, the playwright examines the difficulties of reconciling life with art, the ties and divides between fathers and sons, the loss and rediscovery of self, the desire for approval and validation, the cost of commercial success.
The play’s insights into perceptions of success, from both within and without, are arguably its most distinctive aspect. No matter how much family, partners and friends appear to embrace an artist’s success, a strain of envy and resentment inevitably factors in the relationship, sometimes overwhelmingly so. “How’d you do it? What is it, a gene? What is it you were born with that I wasn’t?” wonders Eric’s childhood buddy Ira (Arye Gross), from whom the writer has long since drifted away.
In each of the play’s first five scenes, Eric’s success is reflected through the prism of someone else’s response to it. Opening in the Brooklyn hospital where Eric’s cranky father, Manny (Allan Miller), is dying, Margulies sharply sketches how the simple shoe salesman favors sarcasm and apparent indifference over any acknowledgement of his more intellectual son’s achievements.
No more fulfilling for Eric is the encounter that follows in the hospital cafeteria with Ira, who identifies himself as the basis for a key character in his old friend’s heavily autobiographical bestseller, “Brooklyn Boy.” After initially showing enthusiasm for Eric’s success, Ira slyly reports his ailing mother’s dismissal of the book. As now-Orthodox Jewish Ira’s sense of being abandoned by his friend surfaces, the gradual mood shift becomes more awkward for Eric. The scene is played by Gross with a prickly comic edge but also aching self-exposure in the play’s most incisive perf.
In a tenderly observed, painful scene, Eric’s soon-to-be ex-wife, Nina (Polly Draper), reveals how his success polluted their relationship for her, underlining her failure as a writer. “I don’t know how you put up with me as long as you did,” says embittered Nina. “The contagion of failure should’ve been overwhelming. Between the miscarriages and the rejection letters…” (The scene recalls the abandoned artist-wife in Margulies’ “Dinner With Friends,” who becomes aware her departing husband held her talent in low esteem.)
The happiness that should come with success continues to evade Eric during a California trip to discuss the bigscreen adaptation of “Brooklyn Boy.” He picks up attractive college student Alison (Ari Graynor) at a book signing. An aspiring producer whose airhead chatter hides darker depths, Alison shares her telling views on fiction writing: “Like watchmakers or violinmakers or something, people who devote themselves so completely to a dying craft. It’s touching.”
When Eric’s sorrow prevents the hotel encounter from progressing to sex, Alison’s anger and hurt over the rejection add another layer to the author’s pain.
While it serves a purpose in modulating the tone and houses some of the play’s funniest dialogue, Eric’s meeting with brash studio exec Melanie (Mimi Lieber) skirts closer to caricature, and Hollywood is a too-easy target for satire. This is especially so when Tyler (Kevin Isola) enters. A buff young goy who has risen to stardom in TV series “Outlaw Billy” (“Billy the Kid, but very now, very sexy”), Tyler eyes the “Brooklyn Boy” lead as an opportunity for him to play against type.
The entry of Tyler for a half scene also provides the only variation from the play’s schematic structure as a series of two-handers. But more than anything, the Hollywood meeting serves to rekindle in Eric a sense of his Jewishness as Melanie insists the family in the story is “a touch too ethnic. … It’s one thing to be Jewish in a book, and another to be Jewish in a movie.”
The closing scene provides another emotionally nuanced encounter with Ira, who turns up to sit shiva while Eric packs up his recently deceased father’s apartment. Eric’s final discussion with his father’s ghost feels too tidy as a device, but it serviceably articulates the playwright’s themes and provides an affecting, bittersweet conclusion.
If the craftsmanship of the episodic play shows weaknesses, these are camouflaged to a great degree by Margulies’ finely honed, witty dialogue; the subtle depths and detail of his characterizations; frequent collaborator Daniel Sullivan’s clean, fluid direction; and unerring perfs from the fine cast.
Onstage through the entire play, Arkin has a supremely difficult task for an actor in chiseling a character out of a largely passive man whose main role is reactive. But his melancholy, burdened Eric provides a warmly human focus and a strong grasp of the writer’s palpable feelings of incompleteness.
Miller also registers vividly as a brusque man with a humbling tendency to withhold affection and praise. Draper, Graynor, Lieber and Isola all create memorable, multidimensional characters in their single scenes.
While the intimate play doesn’t call for elaborate sets, MTC’s Broadway production (premiered and developed by South Coast Rep) has an asset in Ralph Funicello’s sleek designs, backed by a Sheepshead Bay residential block that evokes the faded Brooklyn of Eric’s cloudy memory.