Brooklyn and the bottle

Donald Margulies from SpeakEasy, Alcoholics Anonymous from New Rep
By STEVE VINEBERG  |  June 19, 2006

BROOKLYN BOY: Margulies is a conventional playwright, so we know how this one will turn out.Donald Margulies’s Brooklyn Boy, which is receiving a creditable Boston premiere production from SpeakEasy Stage Company (at the BCA’s Calderwood Pavilion through April 1), chronicles the identity crisis of Eric Weiss (Victor Warren), a Jewish writer from Sheepshead Bay now rounding middle age. His third novel — the first drawing on material from his Brooklyn childhood — has made him newly famous and has been optioned by a Hollywood studio that’s invited him to adapt the screenplay. But his wife (Debra Wise) wants a divorce, and his father (David Kristin), a difficult, undemonstrative man, is dying. The play is structured as a series of encounters Weiss has with people who, in one way or another, challenge him to speak up for his Brooklyn-Jewish legacy or throw it over, and since Margulies is a conventional playwright, we know long before Eric seems to how he’ll decide. The sentimental curtain line is hardly a surprise.

The issues the play handles are familiar from fiction (Philip Roth) and movies (Paul Mazursky’s Next Stop, Greenwich Village, among others), and Margulies does little to vary them. But banality, which isn’t the worst flaw in a (mostly) naturalistic drama, isn’t as much a problem here as the insufficiency of dramatic imagination. Of the six characters who interact with Eric, only the irascible, tenacious old papa and Ira Zimmer (Ken Baltin), the childhood pal he meets in the cafeteria of the hospital where their parents are ensconced, have been fleshed out. Wife Nina is less a character than a series of positions, and though Wise works hard, there’s nothing in the material to galvanize them. We never get a glimpse of what drew these two people together in the first place, or why he’s striving so hard to keep her from walking away, unless it’s just that he can’t conceive any other way of living his life. In the second act, Eric flies out to Hollywood on a book tour and picks up a UCLA undergrad (Joy Lamberton) who comes to hear him read; then he takes a meeting with a producer (Ellen Colton) to get notes on his screenplay and a hot young TV star (Brad Smith) eager to play the lead. These scenes are burlesques, so over the top — especially the studio meeting — that they seem to exist only to remind us that the Brooklyn boy has no business traveling so far from home. Lamberton plays against caricature as much as she can, and though you may not be able to make sense of her role, at least she stays with you. I didn’t buy the other two West Coast representatives for an instant.

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