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Oh, Boy!

Notes on Donald Margulies' Brooklyn Boy and Brian Stokes Mitchell's debut club act at Feinstein's at the Regency.

By New York City
Adam Arkin in Brooklyn Boy(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Adam Arkin in Brooklyn Boy
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Despite some clichés and obvious plot turns, Donald Margulies' Brooklyn Boy is an emotionally honest and deeply satisfying drama. After all, a play doesn't always have to push the envelope in order to mail it. In this instance, the playwright's message about the frailties of family is delivered with passion and precision, thanks in large part to Daniel Sullivan's delicately understated direction and Adam Arkin's sensitive performance as a son who's trying to come to terms with his father.

We're from the Bronx, but we can relate. Anyone with a demanding parent will get the picture. Nothing Arkin's character does seems to impress his dad; no accomplishment is good enough. How do you process that as an adult? How do you heal? That's what Brooklyn Boy is really about. A major asset to the production is Ralph Funicello's stunningly real recreation of a period Brooklyn apartment building façade. It looms in the background as a reminder that the story we're seeing had its beginnings within its walls. Several smaller sets emerge from the bowels of that building -- a Brooklyn hospital room, a Los Angeles hotel room, etc. -- but the contemporary events that unfold can all be traced back to our hero's childhood home.

Arkin plays Eric Weiss, a novelist who, after years of struggle, has finally hit the big time. His novel Brooklyn Boy is number 11 on the New York Times best-seller list. He has just appeared on the Today Show, and the book has been optioned to become a major Hollywood movie. Underneath the success, however, there is trouble: Eric's father (Allan Miller) is dying of cancer; his wife (Polly Draper) is divorcing him; and a film producer (Mimi Lieber) is going to emasculate his story.

A lot of predictable things happen in the midst of these concurrent mini-dramas, but the major surprise of the plot is that Margulies doesn't do the most expected thing of all: go back into the past to give us young Eric Weiss's point of view via his novel. In fact, time after time, Weiss emphasizes that whether the events in the book really happened or not is not the point. Why, he keeps complaining, do people have to know if something in the book really happened or not? What does it matter? The truth -- as we eventually discover in the elegant finale of the play -- is that, in order to survive, we create our own truths.

You'll never catch Adam Arkin in a false move; his performance is a masterwork of natural actions and reactions. Among the other standouts in the cast is Arye Gross; he's intentionally annoying yet wonderfully touching as Ira Zimmer, our protagonist's former best friend, whom he re-encounters after a 25-year separation. Also very much worth noting is Ari Graynor as Alison, a young L.A. woman that our hero brings back to his hotel room. It's a great role, and Graynor milks it for its rich combination of humor and poignancy.

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Brian Stokes Mitchell
Brian Stokes Mitchell
Stokes Up Close at Feinstein's

When big Broadway stars put together cabaret acts, they tend to do exactly what Brian Stokes Mitchell is doing in his debut club gig, Love/Life, at Feinstein's at the Regency. Rather than give his adoring audience what it really wants -- a program of songs from shows in which he has starred, such as Man of La Mancha, Kiss Me, Kate, and Ragtime -- he is singing jazz.

It's understandable that Stokes -- as he prefers to be called -- wants to show us what else he can do. A real charmer, he delivers his self-effacing patter with humor. In point of fact, the biggest challenge for a Broadway star performing in a club act is to play himself for an hour; Stokes does this effortlessly. In addition to showing off his impressive chops as a jazz singer, he impresses with his arrangements (he shares the arranging responsibilities with his musical director, Mike Renzi). Stokes' version of "How Long Has This Been Going On?" (George and Ira Gershwin) is original and special. As far as we're concerned, what makes him an effective jazz singer is that he's also a first-class actor; he doesn't overlook the lyrics when he's riffing through a melody, and when he chooses to sing a ballad such as "New Words" (Maury Yeston), he infuses it with warmth and delicacy.

Finally, Stokes is a smart showman: His encore is "The Impossible Dream." People are paying a king's ransom at Feinstein's to see and hear him up close at Feinstein's, and this is the song that brings them to their feet. They appreciate the jazz -- Stokes is amazingly versatile -- but this is what they really want.

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[To contact the Siegels directly, e-mail them at siegels@theatermania.com.]


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