Brooklyn Boy by Donald Margulies. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Scenic design by Ralph Funicello. Costume design by Jess Goldstein. Lighting design by Chris Parry. Original music and sound design by Michael Roth. Cast: Adam Arkin, Polly Draper, Ari Graynor, Arye Gross, Kevin Isola, Mimi Lieber, Allan Miller.
Some New York residents may now sleep easier at night: With the opening of Donald Margulies's Brooklyn Boy at the Biltmore, beleaguered Brooklyn dwellers who've been represented only by the screeching histrionics of the musical Brooklyn a couple of blocks away finally have Broadway representation they can be proud of.
So, it should be noted, do theatregoers who enjoy well-written, moving shows. Margulies's play, which has been thoughtfully directed by the ever-reliable Daniel Sullivan, is at once quietly comic and insightful about the troubles inherent in growing up and finding your true identity. Margulies is determined to demonstrate the challenges of leaving your past behind while also arguing for the necessity of doing so.
For novelist Eric Weiss, who's finally found the mainstream success that's long eluded him with the publication of his new book Brooklyn Boy, that's involved renouncing much of his Jewish faith and cutting off contact with those he knew growing up. But a return to his childhood neighborhood to visit his father, who's living out his few remaining days in the hospital, convinces him that it's not possible to run from himself forever.
In short order, Eric receives a series of severe lessons about coming to terms with himself, his heritage, and how he treats others. Though Margulies addresses this in a highly episodic way, with Eric usually dealing with only one other character per scene and never more than two, he avoids the easy sentiment and instant revelations that could too easily make the story play like little more than a feel-good movie of the week.
So, most of Eric's encounters are tense and terse: His father (Allan Miller) suspects that Brooklyn Boy might be more autobiographical than Eric wants to admit; a long-abandoned childhood friend (Arye Gross) is an uncomfortable reminder of the past Eric would rather bury; a strained meeting with his estranged wife (Polly Draper) leaves Eric questioning how he contributes to others' senses of self-worth with the truths he tells or avoids; on a trip to California, Eric nearly beds an overzealous young admirer (Ari Graynor); and a meddling Paramount executive insists Eric "improve" the screenplay to his film adaptation of Brooklyn Boy by removing its ethnic connotations and supporting the inappropriate golden-boy star (Kevin Isola) who can't wait to play the lead.
Yet Margulies thoroughly explores each possibility before moving on to the next, and maintains forward motion by seldom allowing Eric (or us) an opportunity to look back. The experiences thus accumulate and subtly interact until the final scene, when their lasting effects on Eric's life are explored in depth. This scene, Margulies's baldest capitulation to audience expectations, is the weakest: The threads of Eric's story are much more interesting when being untied than when being tied back together, and the curtain moment Margulies has devised is predictable from the play's first scene.
Even so, that's as unsatisfying as Brooklyn Boy gets. Otherwise, the play is surprisingly affecting and unsparing in its examination of Eric's character, whether overt (his scene with his father is played as unusually broad, even Jewish comedy) or covert (Eric's paternal instincts play a major role in the scene with his wife, and then are fully developed in unexpected ways with his young fan in a Los Angeles hotel room). Most importantly, Eric is seldom apologetic, giving the show the consistent dramatic anchor it needs to surprise and delight when it could just bore.
A prerequisite for all this working is a great Eric, and Margulies and Sullivan have one in Adam Arkin. The role requires considerable stamina (Eric is offstage for only a few seconds of the show's two-hour-twenty-minute running time), as well as a wide range of understated emotions; Arkin handles them all beautifully. He's particularly effective in his almost violent outbursts, which erupt from an almost continuous subcutaneous smoldering, but is also wonderfully touching in scenes that could too easily degenerate into cliché, such as the emotional breakdown he suffers at Paramount upon realizing how much his father really affected his personal and creative life.
But Arkin is immediately and completely convincing as the conflicted Eric in any milieu, and works well off of his costars, each of whom gives him the opportunity to reveal many different facets of Eric's personality. Miller, Gross, Draper, and Graynor offer him the most, but their scenes are also the most provocative, giving us the broadest perspective of Eric's life, past and present. Lieber and Isola have broader, more cartoonish roles, and play them as such; the show might be stronger still if they were directed to be as resolutely down to earth as their castmates.
Otherwise, Sullivan's direction is terrific, and beautifully highlights the emotion and comedy in Eric's difficult spiritual quest. He and scenic designer Ralph Funicello have designed an eye-catching model of a Brooklyn neighborhood as a backdrop, from which the elements of the play's other sets (representing locations in the hospital, New York, and Los Angeles) emerge and eventually return.
The message is clearly not that you can't go home again, but that you must, and that's well in keeping with Margulies's writing. Brooklyn Boy winningly celebrates home - wherever you can find it, and whether you want it or not - in all its affectionate and frustrating glory.