by Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.
Brooklyn Boy by Donald Margulies--A Memory Piece
Manhattan Theatre Club
The Biltmore Theater
West 47th Street
Reviewed February 10,2005 by Margaret Croyden
The trouble with plays that recall one's boyhood or one's past, particularly if the setting is Brooklyn, is that it produces a feeling of Deja Vue. And this is certainly true of "Brooklyn Boy" by Donald Marguiles, a Pulitzer prize winning playwright. As soon as the curtain rises, and we see Eric Weiss (Adam Arkin) at his father's hospital bed, Manny Weiss ((Allan Miller), who is an acerbic, sour, and judgmental old man, we know we are about to see a father-son play, as well as a story about a son returning to his roots (in Brooklyn) and all that that entails. Eric Weiss is a successful novelist after years of struggle, but his father still thinks of him as loser. Manny Weiss is emotionally stingy, unimpressed by his son's success, and is altogether a nasty piece of work--although the playwright has cleverly given him some funny lines. The son is supposedly a sophisticated, educated man, who seems to be emotionally controlled, even introverted, and longs to get his father's approval, though the old man deserves a good slap. So now we know that this relationship will be a problem.
Second problem: on the way out of the hospital Eric runs into an old pal from his neighborhood, Ira Zimmer. Zimmer has turned ultra religious and has become a pest and a schlemiel, and is depicted as a loser in contrast to Weiss who is considered a success, though his marriage is about to dissolve. Zimmer is sure Weiss's novel (called "Brooklyn Boy") is a portrayal of their boyhood in Brooklyn and is sure he is one of its main characters. Weiss denies this but we in the audience are certain it's true. (Why this becomes an issue in the play is unclear, but the hero doth protest too much. (In fact Margulies, who does come from Brooklyn also denies his own play is autobiographical).
At any rate, the plot thickens: Weiss's book is a best seller; it is bought for a film; Weiss goes to Hollywood to write the screen play; picks up a hip-hop groupie who tries to bed him; has a encounter with a Hollywood producer who thinks his story has too many Jews in it; leaves Hollywood, and finally at the end (no surprise), the father dies. The son goes back to the apartment; his pesky neighbor comes to see him and implores him to say Kaddish --the Jewish prayer for the dead--which Weiss disdains at first but in a super melodramatic end, dons the skullcap and says the prayer. Oh, I forgot, in a prior scene, the father appears as he was in life and, in an useless and boring dialogue, reveals why he was such a malcontent. I guess Margulies was afraid we wouldn't get the point.
What are to make of all this? For one, the playwright depicted Eric Weiss as a man so repressed that he never gives vent to his true feelings, however unpleasant; nor does he ever really assert himself fully, or stand up for what he really believes. Without an cathartic pay-off scene, so to speak, Weiss comes across as a weak, ambivalent character, who cannot break out of his emotional straightjacket--and needs to. It is not easy for an actor to play a pent up character for two hours but Adam Arkin does it with exquisite skill, though finally we are frustrated by the character's stoicism.
Then there is the depiction of Ira Zimmer, the little guy who is a believer. As Margulies wrote him, he is a pest, a jerk, and a nag, continually harassing his friend with his Judaism. The character is depicted as a low-class Jewish clown, quick with the Neil Simon jokes, but stereotypical all the way. Is he a clown because he found religion or did he take up religion to assuage his feeling of failure? And why was his hectoring Weiss to join the synagogue? Why was that part of his character? Which was not only unbelievable, but offensive. All kinds of Jews attend synagogues and don't pester nonbelievers. Why this negative picture of a religious Jew? I would have thought Margulies would know better.
Daniel Sullivan, the director tried to pace the play but it still moved slowly; the scenes were just too talky. He tried to energize the scene between Eric and the young girl, but their movements on the big bed were obviously choreographed; he tried for intimacy in the scene between Eric and his wife (Polly Draper), but they played it so low key that it seemed as if they were auditioning for the Actors Studio--no theatrical projection there.
Finally I guess I have had enough of the back to Brooklyn theme what with the work of Woody Allen, Neil Simon and the others who can't forget their upbringing and are constantly calling upon nostalgia. If a playwright has something new to say, that's fine, but Donald Marguiles' "Brooklyn Boy" is an old story: the successful one who can't forget his roots and wants the other side of the tracks but is uncomfortable with that as well.
Admittedly David Margulies dialogue is amusing; the audience plainly loves the laughs and there are many. But for me that is not enough. Funny lines are too shallow a substitute for genuine thought and really deep feelings. [Croyden]
Margaret Croyden is the author of "Conversations With Peter Brook, 1970-2000," published by Farrar,Straus & Giroux.
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