Back to the Old Neighborhood

Photographs Courtesy of Boneau Bryan Brown; Illustration by Sean McCabe

Ever since the two Homeric wanderers, Odysseus and Agamemnon, came home to their antithetical ends, homecoming has become one of the great, multiform topics of Western literature. Now Donald Margulies offers his take on the motif in Brooklyn Boy, a comedy with serious overtones. Here, though, it is not a matter of returning to a family, wife, or hearth, but to a neighborhood, mind-set, and religion: Brooklyn and Judaism, both of which Eric Weiss has escaped from and has no wish to embrace.

Eric, a novelist, has on his third try written a best-seller, Brooklyn Boy, with a certain resemblance to his own experiences, which some read as autobiography; he considers it fiction, with the milieu and persons of his past recast, recombined, or reinvented. The play opens with a visit to his dying, long-widowed father in Maimonides Hospital, which leads to a chance reencounter with Ira, a childhood friend, and, through him, the Brooklyn and Jewishness that might repossess him. Aided by his art, which transcends the parochial and petit bourgeois, by his shiksa wife, Nina (even if now in the process of leaving him), and by an acquired secular worldview wherein Judaism, which for him represents guilt and grief, has no place, Eric has, like Houdini (real name Ehrich Weiss), shed the chains that bound him.

Manny, the shoe-salesman father who always belittled his son, now has no comprehension of Eric’s literary triumph, even if some of its trappings impress him. The bedside confrontation is, despite everything, funny, Margulies’s humanity refusing to reject the small-minded yet drolly naïve father. Even more humorous is the non-bridging of the gap between Eric and his worshipful but also envious schoolboy chum, whose efforts to reattach him to his roots comically miscarry.

Eric’s bid at reconciliation with Nina, herself an (unsuccessful) writer, is one of those bittersweet—more bitter than sweet—scenes Margulies excels at. We next see Eric in Hollywood, where his reading and book-signing have led to his bringing a young fan, Alison, back to his hotel room, with unexpected results. Next, he tangles with the crass woman producer in charge of the movie version of his novel, and the popular but ludicrously unsuited actor who wants to star in it. About the rest, I keep mum.

The play deals artfully and, if I may say, heartfully, yet always unassumingly, with any number of existential problems, in dialogue steeped in wit and perspicacity, and situations of easefully sustained interest. Each character has either some unsuspected endearing complexity or some delightfully caricatured but perfectly credible absurdity about him or her, and the hero’s checkered trajectory through the pitfalls of success no less than failure rings absorbingly true.

Under Daniel Sullivan’s customarily expert direction, in Ralph Funicello’s incisive décor and Jess Goldstein’s characterful costumes, the cast takes marvelous possession of the play. Adam Arkin’s Eric, whether tickled, dumbfounded, or depressed by events, keeps a beleaguered rationality through it all; Allan Miller gives us a wonderfully calibrated, sympathetically irritating Manny. Similarly, Arye Gross, as Ira, skillfully balances obnoxiousness with sweetness, and Polly Draper does her winning best by the somewhat underwritten Nina. Mimi Lieber and Kevin Isola, as producer and actor, contribute well-earned laughs. But the bravura performance is Ari Graynor’s Alison—not quite airhead, not quite groupie, and easily overactable—in a delicious cameo, equally touching as amusing. Bits of autobiography no doubt lurk in all this, but Margulies’s imagination has gracefully transmuted them into something universal and endearing. Though not up to Margulies’s best, the play tidily prevents Broadway’s current drama gap from gaping.

Brooklyn Boy
By Donald Margulies.
Directed by Daniel Sullivan.
Manhattan Theatre Club and South Coast Repertory.
Biltmore Theatre. Through March 27.

Back to the Old Neighborhood