Ralph Funicello has designed one of the most perfect sets I've ever seen to brood over Donald Margulies' entertaining "Brooklyn Boy."
You are stunned by it as soon as you enter the theater - a Brooklyn apartment building, begrimed and in shadow but proclaiming its middle-class solidity and respectability.
It underscores Margulies' concern with how far we get from our roots and how little it takes to bring us back to them.
This theme is marvelously evoked at the beginning of Margulies' ambitious play.
In the first scene, Eric Weiss (Adam Arkin), a successful novelist, visits his dying father (Allan Miller) in Maimonides Hospital.
As soon as he sees his son, he says, "Jesus, I must be sicker than I thought," and their entire, tense relationship is vividly evoked.
In the hospital cafeteria, Eric runs into Ira (Arye Gross), his closest friend from high school. Just as Eric has become more and more assimilated, Ira has become even more Jewish, which clearly grates on Eric.
All this seems ripe for exploring, especially given the multitude of Brooklynites who have had so profound an effect on American culture.
But after these two scenes, the play goes off course. Eric visits his estranged, non-Jewish wife (Polly Draper).
He then flies to Hollywood to discuss the movie adaptation of his best-selling novel, titled, natch, "Brooklyn Boy."
We see him in his hotel room with a college girl (Ari Graynor) he picked up at his book reading. Then we watch an encounter with his high-powered agent (Mimi Lieber) and an airhead actor (Kevin Isola).
The Hollywood scenes are uproariously funny, but they seem a distraction. The play ends in his father's apartment in that haunting building. We've come full circle. It's been an amusing journey, but not a satisfying one.
It's a testament to Margulies' craft that everything works as smoothly as it does, but the play seems like an early draft - its premise remains unfulfilled.
Director Daniel Sullivan has cast it impeccably. Arkin, with his woebegone expression and foghorn voice, makes Eric deeply sympathetic. Miller manages to make the father funny enough that we overlook his abrasiveness.
Gross' nudgy Ira is oddly appealing, and Draper makes the ex-wife astringent but graceful.
The two Hollywood women, Graynor and Lieber, are pitch perfect, and Isola does an astonishing job as the actor, capturing both his dizziness and his talent.
Costume designer Jess Goldstein has conveyed the colors of the characters subtly, redeeming himself from "Good Vibrations."
"Brooklyn Boy" is a thoroughly enjoyable evening. Given Margulies' talent, I had expected more.
One of the great mortifications of middle age is being forced to admit the truth in those extra-mossy clichés that you mock when you are young and arrogant. The past always catches up with you; blood is thicker than water; be careful what you wish for. These are among the stale-but-true bromides that are reluctantly acknowledged and ultimately embraced by the title character in "Brooklyn Boy," the sincere but doggedly unsurprising new play by Donald Margulies that opened last night at the Biltmore Theater.
This latest work from the talented author of "Sight Unseen" and the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Dinner With Friends" has the courage to confront head-on the predictability of the midlife crisis it portrays. Part of the play's point, it would seem, is that life often does fall into predictable patterns. And "Brookyn Boy," smoothly directed by Daniel Sullivan and acted with fine-grained conviction by a cast led by Adam Arkin, may indeed be Mr. Margulies's most personally heartfelt work.
But while this comic drama is steeped in an admirably humble and often touching spirit of acceptance, it seldom does what first-rate plays must do and what Mr. Margulies has achieved repeatedly before: it does not make the familiar seem fresh.
You can pretty much determine where "Brooklyn Boy," a Manhattan Theater Club production in association with South Coast Repertory, is headed from its opening scene. Eric Weiss (Mr. Arkin), a chicly attired and suddenly successful novelist with an Ivy League accent, sits at the hospital bedside of his dying father, Manny (Allan Miller), whose accent, inflections and attitude are all vintage Brooklyn Jew. Eric, a self-described "escape artist" now living in Manhattan, has worked hard at distancing himself from the insular ethnicity of his Brooklyn childhood.
But his palpable hunger for this dry old man's approval and his unsettling meeting in the hospital lounge with a long-forgotten, yarmulke-wearing friend (Arye Gross) suggest that Eric will spend the rest of the play metaphorically crossing the river back to the borough where he was born. Eric takes the long way home, with detours into more cosmopolitan regions. But you never doubt that he will wind up where he started in life, communing with the ghosts of a discarded past.
The central motifs in "Brooklyn Boy" have always been visible in Mr. Margulies's work, from the willed amnesia of the self-invented artist ("Sight Unseen") to the hazy lines between fiction and reality ("Collected Stories"). And Eric's fractious, divided family, summoned in recollection in "Brooklyn Boy," has been anticipated in "The Loman Family Picnic" and "What's Wrong With This Picture?"
But while in the past Mr. Margulies's approach to well-worn themes has usually been from an oblique angle that freshens and refocuses perspective, "Brooklyn Boy" stares straight at its subject. (Ralph Funicello's lovely, lyrical sets, in which rooms seem to melt into one another, is the production's least literal-minded element.)
Mr. Margulies has said that "Brooklyn Boy" was inspired by his friend Herb Gardner, the playwright, who died in 2003. And especially in its opening and concluding scenes, "Brooklyn Boy" brings to mind the clipped, comic rhythms and sentimental undertow of Gardner, whose plays include "A Thousand Clowns" and "Conversations With My Father" (which could well be an alternative title for "Brooklyn Boy"). There is even a hint of Neil Simon, in his autobiographical mode, in Manny's droll emotional stinginess with his son.
Mr. Miller delivers Manny's guilt-inducing barbs with classic Simonesque spin. And Mr. Gross brings an astutely defensive air of deference to the role of the schlemiel school chum who escorts Eric through the world he left behind. But neither actor is able to dispel the fog of déjà vu that enshrouds their scenes. The same cloud clings to Eric's meeting with a typically sharklike movie producer (Mimi Lieber), for whom he is adapting his book into a screenplay, and the standard-issue shallow young star (Kevin Isola) who wants to portray Eric's alter ego.
Two other scenes, however, shake off the dust of traditional situations and remind us of how rewarding a writer Mr. Margulies can be for the right performers. Both are sexual encounters of a sort, though there is little physical contact. And both speak more indirectly, but also more eloquently, about the ironies of answered prayers than anything else in the play.
In the first of these scenes, Eric visits his estranged wife, Nina (Polly Draper, who makes splendid use of her expressive long legs and guarded face), at the East Village apartment they used to share. Nina, too, is a writer, but she has never experienced anything like her husband's success. As Eric and Nina spar cautiously, the air is thick with ruefulness, resentment and also enduring love. It's a quietly, confidently executed pas de deux that defines in mere minutes a complete relationship.
The following scene finds Eric in a hotel room in Los Angeles with a very different kind of woman. That's Alison (Ari Graynor), a Britney Spears look-alike and university student whom Eric has met in a bookstore, where he has been promoting his novel. On one level, this is your usual comic face-off between middle-aged man and hot young chick. But by degrees, the conversation - shaped by the expected but amusing generation gap in jargon and cultural references - guides these mismatched characters, especially Alison, into eye-opening moments of self-revelation.
Mr. Arkin, excellent throughout, is especially effective here, discovering affecting variations on Eric's habit of retreating from the world around him. (His most characteristic posture finds him with arms folded like a barricade over his chest.) And Ms. Graynor, the find of this production, expertly steers Alison from a bubble-headed Valley girl into a complex, conflicted young woman who filters the conventional wisdom about her generation (that it is celebrity-crazed, fame-hungry, book-disdaining) through a stinging and specific presence.
In creating a character like Alison, so obviously different from himself, Mr. Margulies compels his imagination to go places it might not otherwise. And stretching those muscles of empathy gives the scene a tone of authenticity that much of the rest of "Brooklyn Boy" lacks.
Mr. Margulies, by the way, is himself a Brooklyn-born boy who recently turned 50 and had his breakthrough commercial success a few years ago with "Dinner With Friends." No doubt there is much of Mr. Margulies in Eric Weiss. But this is one playwright who seems to benefit more from looking outward rather than within.
Eric Weiss, late-blooming best-selling novelist, claims to be trying out new selves to go with his new life, as if his identity were as easy to pull off as a coat. Book tours, chats on morning TV, meetings about the movie adaptation - all this is heady stuff for a middle-aged secular Jew with a resentful dying father in Brooklyn and a competitive estranged wife in the East Village.
Donald Margulies' "Brooklyn Boy," which Manhattan Theatre Club opened on Broadway last night, is filled with sudden insights and glorious patches of unpredictable eloquence. But even Daniel Sullivan's first-rate production cannot disguise an old yawn of a story in modern dress. The final moment is such a cliche that we leave questioning the authenticity of Eric's entire quest. When we can't believe in the last scene, we forget why we trusted him before intermission.
In many ways, "Brooklyn Boy" is the lesser companion to Margulies' "Sight Unseen," the wrenching 1992 drama that Sullivan revived so brilliantly at this same Biltmore Theatre last spring. Both plays involve the ethical confusion that artistic and commercial success lays on assimilated Jewish men, not to mention the allure of gentile women. Both include self-lacerating scenes with wildly original young women, savvy seducers who just may know more than we want to hear about these times.
"Sight Unseen" is not merely a more elegant, complicated play. Its world, the international art market, also introduces more interesting conflicts than these same old tensions between literature and the movies. The earlier play also spares us basic arguments about the value of autobiography versus pure fiction. What's truth? What's art? What's Jewish? What's new?
Adam Arkin does everything but lick our faces to make us feel good about Eric and, until Margulies betrays the character entirely, we do. Arkin, with his big wagging puppy head, has a lovely way of seeming comfortable in his big frame while making us realize the uneasiness under his skin. We first encounter his alienation at Maimonides Hospital, where his dying father - deftly played with cold-fish folksiness by Allan Miller - does not merely demean his son's new novel, "Brooklyn Boy," but dismisses his entire life.
In six swift scenes, we accompany Eric to agonizing meetings with a childhood friend (played with delicious, self-hating grandiosity by Arye Gross) who married an Orthodox Jew, transformed into his father and has followed Eric's literary career with admiring spite. Also jealous is Eric's soon-to-be-ex wife (the commanding Polly Draper), a writer who sees his success as a reminder of "all the things I failed at," including motherhood.
Mimi Lieber manages to seem fresh as the familiar dragon-lady movie producer, who memorably explains why Eric's screenplay is too Jewish. Kevin Isola has a surprisingly sly cameo as a young actor who finds his characters through his hair. Perhaps best of all is Ari Graynor as the ambitious young woman who comes back to Eric's hotel room after a book-signing and explains the significance of his role in the story of her own life.
Eric's journey is always played against the background of a red-brick Brooklyn building, skillfully designed by Ralph Funicello to change locations by spitting out a hospital bed or rolling in some screens.
"Brooklyn Boy" is perhaps the most conventional work by Margulies, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for "Dinner with Friends." Despite the disappointments of his new play, it is sprinkled with beautiful writing and infused with what the Hollywood shark refers to as "aching ruefulness." When Eric's wife asks him to leave, Draper says in her alluring, throaty voice, "This is what the end looks like." If only.
Does the world really need another play, movie or book about a solipsistic artist going through a midlife crisis?
The short answer is no. But if we must have one, Brooklyn Boy (* * 1/2 out of four), the latest offering from Dinner With Friends and Sight Unseen playwright Donald Margulies, is at least an entertaining option, if not a terribly enlightening one.
Brooklyn Boy, which opened Thursday at Broadway's Biltmore Theatre, focuses on a middle-aged author on the cusp of hard-won commercial success, thanks to a semiautobiographical account of the Brooklyn youth he left behind some 25 years ago.
But before he can savor his triumph, Margulies' scribe must deal with a dying father who continues to withhold his approval, an estranged wife frustrated by her own failures as a writer, and a childhood friend who feels scorned and abandoned by his more accomplished peer.
That's just in the first act, before our protagonist, Eric Weiss, goes to Hollywood to meet with film executives interested in adapting his book. There he encounters a whole other set of confounding characters, among them a would-be groupie with a blond ponytail and a fast-talking producer who finds his screenplay "a touch too ethnic. Anyone sound familiar yet?
Ironically, Margulies, himself a 50-year-old, Jewish Brooklyn native, runs into the same problems as Eric does. By reducing many of the people we encounter to stereotypes, the real writer makes the fictional one less sympathetic, and his story less compelling. Had Eric's father, for example, been portrayed as less willfully ignorant of his son's achievements, or had the old buddy been less of a spineless nebbish, their scenes might have offered genuine tension and pathos, rather than just easy jokes and glib insights.
Nonetheless, those scenes are, for the most part, well crafted and, as directed by the nimble Daniel Sullivan, well played. As Eric, Adam Arkin turns in a wry, rueful performance, deftly engaging and reacting to his fellow cast members. Allan Miller gamely plays Eric's father, Manny, who responds to the news that his son's book is No. 11 on the best-seller list by grousing, "I thought it only went to 10."
Polly Draper is similarly convincing (and looks great) as Eric's soon-to-be ex, and Ari Graynor has some funny moments as a dizzy college student whom Eric meets at a reading. Kevin Isola also impresses as a seemingly vapid young actor who, in the play's most surprising and affecting interlude, helps Eric re-enact a youthful confrontation that provides another glimpse into his long-troubled relationship with Manny.
One only wishes that Brooklyn Boy offered a little more in the way of reflection and revelation.