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A CurtainUp Review

Brooklyn Boy By Elyse Sommer
How do you sit down and build something out of words, something that wasn't there before? ---Manny .
I invent, and imagine. And remember. --- Eric
Donald Margulies, himself a Brooklyn boy, might well be viewed a poster boy for the familiar "write about what you know" dictum. Brooklyn Boy is not only the autobiographically scented title of his new play, but of his main character's first successful novel which, unlike his previous two books, is about what he (and Margulies) know -- growing up Jewish in Brooklyn.

Margulies' main character treads territory that has been much traveled by others (including his late friend Herb Gardner who urged him to revisit this subject from a turning fifty perspective). Thus play about a man trying to untangle the knots in his psyche long after cutting the strings of family, religious and neighborhood runs the risk of bringing to mind thoughts of another cliche about the fruits borne from familiarity.

Master of subtle characterization and humor-filled dialogue that he is, Mr. Margulies has managed to make Brooklyn Boy's familiar themes fresh and pleasurable -- and as universal as breakfast bagels. His script is so exquisitely authentic and entertaining that even the one bit of closing business that succumbs to predictable cliche is not enough of a letdown to spoil the two-plus preceding hours.

Strictly speaking, Eric Weiss, the play's title character, is not so much hero as middle-aged every-mensch trying to reconcile his past and present. While Eric's life propels the narrative, structure, he is also a straight man for the other characters' self-revelations.

The tone overall is low key -- five smoothly orchestrated, not too fast or slowly paced duets and one trio between Adam Arkin's Eric Weiss and the five other characters. The only explosions are the many bursts of laughter from the audience. The Chekhovian gun to hint at the too predictable ending (the already mentioned brief misfire) is a yarmulke (the skull caps worn by observant Jews) -- two yarmulkes, really; one worn by Ira Zimmer (Arye Gross), plus the extra one he brings to his final encounter with Eric.

Arkin is splendidly troubled in the most exhausting, always on stage leading role, but the other actors all create wonderfully detailed character portraits. Even Kevin Isola in the smallest male part, an oh-so Hollywood actor who sees playing the main part in the movie adaptation of Eric's novel as a breakout from typecasting-- and actually demonstrates he's got the stuff (one of many examples of Margulies's flair for turning a stock characterization on its head).

Just when I thought that Allan Miller as Manny Weiss, the dying, still approval withholding but acerbically funny father would be my favorite performer, along comes Broadway and Manhattan Theatre Club debuting Arye Gross as the endearingly obnoxious Ira Zimmer. Ira is the Brooklyn Boy who stayed home and now feels that he's become the father he despised having taken over the family delicatessen and moved his ever-growing orthodox family into his boyhood home. Gross nails the mix of admiration and envy of the Nebbish who takes vicarious pride in Eric's success. He's also more than a little envious, as evident in his wistful comments on his own inability to aspire to a prestigious college education (Eric went to Columbia, Ira to Brooklyn College) even though he was also a smart kid ("How'd you do it? What is it, a gene? A chemical? What is it you were born with that I wasn't?").

Each of the play's six scenes that give us another view of why Eric's success is tinged with loss and loneliness could almost stand on its own as a mini-play. Each sheds another light on the multiple themes explored: questions about the literary validity of fact-based fiction; the temptations, compromises and resentments that accompanycelebrity; the conversations between fathers and sons that will remain forever unfinished.

While Eric's two literary miscarriages have finally paid off with a "baby" on the best seller list, for Nina, his writer wife (Polly Draper), it exacerbates the pain of her failed attempts at motherhood and publication. What gives the husband and wife confrontation poignancy is that for all her irreparable resentments, there is enough love to make you ache for both of them.

The first of the second act's Hollywood scenes marks another impressive Broadway and MTC debut by Ari Graynor. As a Hollywood co-ed whom Eric picks up at a book signing, Graynor not only does a pitch-perfect take on the body language and lingo of someone whose attitude towards books ("fiction is like so over" ), success and life generally make Eric feel like a visiting alien from another planet. But the young actress smartly lets us see that there's a bit more to this fame-besotted blonde than meets the eye. Mimi Lieber's fast-talking Hollywood producer makes Eric feel even more like a visiting Martian.

Much of the credit for this first Margulies play to open on Broadway is due Daniel Sullivan who once again has given the playwright's work a top of the line production. (Sullivan helmed the Pulitzer-Prize winning Dinner With Friends as well as last season's superb revival of Sight Unseen ). Ralph Funicello's set (lit to perfection by Chris Parry) is as lovely and effective as any I've seen this season. The props for each scene's new location roll into and out of view with balletic grace. The red-brick apartment house in the background beckons not only the author of Brooklyn Boy, the novel, but all of us, to discard the regrets and embrace the joys of our childhood.

Sight Unseen
Dinner With Friends (trivia collectors take note-- this starred another of the talented Arkin clan, Adam's brother Matthew).
Collected Stories: MTC production . . .  Uta Hagen production . . .  Shakespeare & Co. production
Broken Sleep

Brooklyn Boy
Written by Donald Margulies
Directed by Daniel Sullivan
Cast: Allan Miller (Manny Weiss), Adam Arkin (Eric Weiss), Arye Gross (Ira Zimmerman), Polly Draper (Nina Weiss), Ari Graynor (Alison), Mimi Lieber (Melanie Fine) and Kevin Isola (Tyler Shaw).
Set Design: Ralph Funicello
Costume Design: Jess Goldstein
Lighting Design: Chris Parry
O riginal music and Sound Design: Michael Roth
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes with intermission.
Manhattan Theater Club, Biltmore Theater, 261 West 47th Street,
From 1/13/05 to 3/20/05; opening 2/04/05.
Tue - Sat at 8pm; Sat & Sun at 2pm; Sun at 7pm/ Mar 9 at 1pm
Tickets $53 to $79
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on performance February 5th press performance
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