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Adam Arkin and Ari Graynor in Brooklyn Boy
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Whenever Donald Margulies has promoted Brooklyn Boy, he's mentioned that it was his pal, playwright Herb Gardner, who urged him to consider his native borough for the makings of a new play. Of course, Margulies isn't the first Jewish writer to revisit the old neighborhood physically and cogitatively for inspiration; to name only two others, David Mamet went back for the play that he titled The Old Neighborhood and Avery Corman returned for the novel that he also titled The Old Neighborhood.

Indeed, Brooklyn Boy -- which, like all of Margulies' plays, is beautifully crafted from line to line -- wears a sense of déjà vu as heavy as an Astrakhan overcoat. Increasingly, you get the feeling that you've seen and heard it all before, even as you concede that it may not have been better expressed by Philip Roth or Neil Simon. As Roth did, Margulies creates a writer-protagonist with autobiographical overtones who's forever explaining to the people he encounters, including his dying dad, that the focal figure in his new novel Brooklyn Boy is only suggested by himself. And, as Simon did in the family-listens-to-the-radio scene in Broadway Bound, Margulies gives us a sequence wherein a writer's achievements are trivialized by those closest to him.

Brooklyn Boy begins with a painfully funny father-son colloquy: Eric Weiss (Adam Arkin) tries to extract some hint of approval from Manny Weiss (Allan Miller), who's dying of prostate cancer. The younger Weiss's novel has hit The New York Times' bestseller chart, which he sees as a breakthrough -- but, to his withholding dad, showing up in the 11th slot only means missing the top 10. Unable to get what he craves from the old man, Eric subsequently fails to receive satisfaction from his nudgy boyhood friend Ira Zimmer (Arye Gross), whom he bumps into at the hospital cafeteria, or from his estranged wife, Nina (Polly Draper), whom he drops in on with hopes of reconciliation.

In the second half of the play, which director Daniel Sullivan and set designer Ralph Funicello move along quickly and which costume designer Jess Goldstein dresses nicely, Weiss extends his existential search for recognition and validation with unimproved results. In California, he brings young Alison (Ari Graynor) back to his hotel room and has to listen while she raids his minibar and explains that fiction means nothing to her peers. He has a meeting with movie producer Melanie Fine (Mimi Lieber), who pronounces the adaptation that he's done perfect yet demands rewrites in order to make the Weiss story less Jewish. (In the déjà-vu department, none of Margulies' scenes tops this one: The audience can practically spout Fine's insensitive-Hollywood-mogul dialogue along with her.) What redeems the segment is the appearance of hot actor Tyler Shaw (Kevin Isola), who's got all the young thesp tics down but catches Eric emotionally when they read a father/son scene from the proposed screenplay. Eric's two-act search ends as he's clearing out his now-deceased dad's apartment and is interrupted by both the well-meaning Ira and Manny Weiss's ghost/memory.

Does Eric's life fall apart when it should be rich with career gratification? Does Eric take Ira's advice to embrace his past and his religion? You won't find out here, but suffice it to say that for all of Margulies' understanding of disappointment, he's not a pessimist. He contributes his strongest writing when he assesses the tricky nature of success, capturing with commendable skill the resentments aimed at successful people -- and the ambivalent motives attributed to them -- by those with whom they come in contact.

Polly Draper and Adam Arkin in Brooklyn Boy
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
In the role of Eric, Adam Arkin registers disillusionment extremely well and fills the stage with bracing ire on the few occasions when the character realizes that circumstances are getting the best of him. A veteran of the first production of Margulies' Sight Unseen, Arkin is becoming as important an alter-ego for this playwright as Judd Hirsch has been for Herb Gardner. It's generally a win-win situation for both Margulies and Arkin, although there are times during Brooklyn Boy when the latter has to sit still while others steal scenes out from under him. The biggest thief is Arye Gross, a beak-nosed wire-hanger in a yarmulke, who's often simultaneously obsequious and imperious as Ira Zimmer. Ari Graynor as Alison plays bruised nubility well. Allan Miller's Manny Weiss is rightly cool and longing as a man who doesn't want to give love because he's worried that he'll get none in return. Kevin Isola's Tyler Shaw is a sly, satirical turn. Mimi Lieber is effective in a part that you've seen many times before, and Polly Draper is effective in a part that she's played many times before.
Describing how he crafts his novels, Eric Weiss says that he invents, imagines, and remembers. In Brooklyn Boy, Donald Margulies relies too much on remembering overly familiar situations while inventing and imagining little.

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