Looked at another way, the play is a comedy about Brooklyn - more specifically, about Brooklyn Jews. Its characters include the standard crotchety father who looks at the length of his son's book and asks, "What have you got to say that would take up 384 pages?" There's an old friend who has since turned Orthodox, runs a delicatessen and can't go five minutes without tossing a Yiddish word into the conversation. There's a blond-headed actor with a Southern drawl who thinks he can play Weiss in the movie adaptation, and an agent who politely suggests that Weiss's story is a little "too ... ethnic" for Hollywood.
The play is rather more successful as the comedy about Brooklyn Jews. It isn't full of belly laughs, but it gets more than its fair share of character-based chuckles. Brooklyn Boy opens with Eric visiting his father, Manny, in the hospital. It could be a depressing or touching scene, both because of the circumstances of the meeting and the gulf between the men, but Margulies gives Manny a laugh on nearly every line - and Allan Miller's natural delivery soon has the audience waiting for the next punchline, whether he is complaining about the movie on television, hospital food, or the fact that his son should've worn a tie when he was on the "Today" show.
As a drama of self-discovery, Margulies's script has difficulty transcending its trite plotline. The great bulk of the play involves individual scenes in which Eric speaks with one other characters. No matter how delightful the comic dialogue, we're still dealing with a standard son-trying-to-earn-his-father's-approval scene or a marriage-falling-apart-because-the-wife-can't-deal-with-the-husband's-success scene. The best scene in the play comes when Margulies puts Eric opposite a character who doesn't seem to have come straight from Central Casting and ends up creating a really wonderful, unusual scene. At the top of the second act, we find Eric in a hotel room with a young woman, played to comic perfection by Ari Graynor. Graynor's character (whose identity is not initially revealed) at first appears to be stereotypical, but she has a hidden depth which makes the entire scene captivating. Margulies has written it with great delicacy, portraying a moment in which a single decision can be the right thing and the wrong thing at the same time.
However, sometime after this theatrical high point, the script degenerates into three theatrical cliches in a row, none of which are given anywhere near the level of set-up they need to be plausible. The result is a final scene which tries its best to be touching, but ends up drowning in its dubiousness. It is a shame, because the rest of the play is quite solid.
The cast is well suited to their task. Adam Arkin plays Weiss, the character around whom the play revolves. In truth, although Arkin is on stage for the entire play, he doesn't have much to do beyond reacting uncomfortably to things said by those around him. But when he does speak, Weiss frequently uses incredulous sarcasm, which seems to be Arkin's speciality. In addition to Miller and Graynor, fine supporting work is also done by Arye Gross as Weiss's earnest old friend, and Kevin Isola as the actor who wants to play Weiss in the movie. Kudos also to Ralph Funicello, whose set very literally puts Weiss's life in the shadow of his Brooklyn past.
The South Coast Repertory production of Brooklyn Boy is a co-production with Manhattan Theatre Club, which will open the show at the Biltmore Theatre in February. Because of its comic writing, its message about one's ethnic roots, and its single memorable scene, the production should have no trouble finding an audience. But the routine ending prevents Brooklyn Boy from being anything special.
Brooklyn Boy runs at South Coast Repertory through October 10, 2004. For tickets and information, visit http://www.scr.org.
South Coast Repertory -- David Emmes, Producing Artistic Director; Martin Benson, Artistic Director -- in association with Manhattan Theatre Club, presents the world premiere of Brooklyn Boy by Donald Margulies. Scenic Design by Ralph Funicello; Costume Design by Jess Goldstein; Lighting Design by Chris Parry; Original Music and Sound Design by Michael Roth; Dramaturg Jerry Patch; Production Manager Tom Aberger; Stage Manager Scott Harrison. Directed by Daniel Sullivan.
Photo by Ken Howard