Donald Margulies' first off-Broadway play, Found a Peanut opened at New York's Public Theater in 1984. The play was set in Brooklyn circa 1962, and it announced the arrival of a bold new theatrical talent. In the 20 years since Found a Peanut, Margulies has become one of America's premiere playwrights. In that time, his plays have become more and more engaging--and more successful--culminating with his last play, Dinner With Friends, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
With each play, Margulies has moved away from the stories of life in Brooklyn's past and instead he's been focusing on the lives of people--artists, writers, or suburbanites--who inhabit the present. The World Premiere of Margulies' newest play, Brooklyn Boy, here in Southern California, has been hailed by some as the playwright's return to his outer-borough roots; but more accurately, this piece marks a melding of old and new.
The mythic Brooklyn of his earlier work features prominently in this play, but mainly in the minds of its characters--who are more similar to the people who have populated his recent dramas. Like Sight Unseen and Collected Stories, Brooklyn Boy's characters resemble people you might read about in New Yorker profiles or hear gossiped about at artsy cocktail parties. The title's Brooklyn boy, played by Adam Arkin, suggests Jonathan Franzen, had he grown up in Flatbush instead of St. Louis.
Also like Sight Unseen and Collected Stories, this play investigates the costs, both financial and emotional, of artistic success. Here, the Brooklyn boy has become a man of the world--a newly minted cultural icon--but he's also on the verge of losing his father to cancer and his wife to divorce. This may sound like familiar literary territory, but somehow Margulies is able to make these potentially clich--d scenes seem fresh. His dialogue, as always, is crisp and informed--Margulies has a great ear for lingo, which he uses judiciously, so that his work feels conversational and real, without sounding like a glib expos--.
Adam Arkin is completely at ease in role of Eric Weiss, the author. He's both eminently likable yet at the same time oddly aloof--obviously Arkin's spent a good amount of time around writers. He's helped by a strong supporting cast, which includes Mimi Lieber as a batty development exec and Ari Graynor as a literary groupie.
But the heart and soul of Margulies' new play lies in the character of Ira Zimmer, played with great precision and zest by Arye Gross. Ira Zimmer is another Brooklyn boy, one that didn't grow up to become the toast of Manhattan. Instead, Ira Zimmer grew up to be a Brooklyn man, taking over his father's Deli and raising a family. He represents the Brooklyn that Arkin's writer leaves behind. The two reunite in the neighborhood hospital, both visiting their sick parents, and the drama that unfolds in Brooklyn Boy deals with both men trying to resolve and understand the choices they made which have led them to the places where they are today.
Sadly, the resolution of this drama is the only unsatisfying element of the play. What's so odd about this is that perhaps Margulies' greatest talent as a writer has been his ability to end his plays with captivating moments--the ringing phone at the end of Collected Stories, the kiss at the end of Sight Unseen--that manage to expertly bring the action to a close, as well as subtly reinforce the themes of the work.
With Brooklyn Boy, the tableau at the end of the play is striking, but it feels emotionally empty. It plays like an afterthought, as does much of the final scene--which relies on a deus ex machina that sorely sticks out in Margulies' straightforward, naturalistic work. This spring, Brooklyn Boy will travel to Broadway, so one can only hope that the play, like its main character, will find itself here in California before it heads back home to New York.
Brooklyn Boy continues at South Coast Rep's Segerstrom Stage through October 10.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.