When the Manhattan Theatre Club gets things right, memorable theatre is the inevitable result. But because I didn't care for The Loman Family Picnic, Donald Margulies's 1989 play, my expectations for Broadway Boy, which augured to mine the same territory, were not high. The identity crises of Brooklyn Jews who have grown up to be successful aliens to home base have if anything been overexposed on Broadway in the past ten or fifteen years. (Why, wasn't there a touch of this in Sight Unseen, the Craig Lucas play that MTC revived last season?) But Mr Margulies has reinvented the genre. His hero, Eric Weiss, isn't having the identity crisis. Everybody else is. The switch makes for a very funny play. Along the way, we watch a horror show, as the full horror of America's reading habits are only slightly exaggerated. To this base, add perfect casting and perfect everything else, and you've got a hit. Ralph Funicello's set, centered on the fašade of a city walkup that was almost always in the background, was fluid and minimal but always convincing; I always felt that the spaces were real (as I never quite did while watching Democracy earlier this year, right across the street). Chris Parry's score contributed to a melancholy that you didn't really notice until it was replaced with a Hollywood glare in the penultimate scene. Jess Goldstein's modest, self-effacing costumes were spot on. Michael Roth's music established a somewhat sombre background that was the perfect foil to the play's humor. I kept wondering if the play would follow Doubt to Broadway, but, with a production directed by Daniel Sullivan at MTC's Biltmore Theatre, Broadway Boy is already on Broadway.
I said that Eric Weiss doesn't have an identity crisis, but that isn't for want of grounds. His identity is certainly in the middle of a big shift. In a career trajectory that parallels Jonathan Franzen's, Eric is about to hit the big time with his third book, Broadway Boy; the first two, which received some acclaim but small sales, are about to be reissued in paper, just as Mr Franzen's earlier novels were in the wake of the success of The Corrections. (I don't think that Mr Margulies had Mr Franzen in mind, but he may have done.) That's the first shift. The second, something of a consequence, is the breakup of his marriage to Nina. Nina is also a writer - she and Eric met at Iowa - but she has not been successful; in fact, she hasn't published anything in six years. Nor has she produced a child - which is just as well. The third shift facing Eric is the loss of his surviving parent; his father is dying of prostate cancer.
But as Eric prepares to deal with these tough changes - and, believe me, his success as a novelist is made to look no easier to bear than death or divorce - he doesn't seem to be under any internal pressure. There are no structural cracks. Maybe there will be in Eric's future, but that doesn't concern us in the slightest. Eric is a solid man because - that's just who he is. It's not a virtue. He has faults and insecurities like anybody else. But he doesn't agonize over the standard question: Could I ever really have left Sheepshead Bay behind me? And will I bear not being able to go back? Adam Arkin is just the right actor for this role. His self-possession is as natural as his bone structure, and he presents Eric's determination to make something of himself as a personal, more or less private, goal, not as the noisy affair that it can be. Eric isn't out to prove anything to anybody. At the same time, he'd like a little love and respect from his father, and Mr Arkin's Eric is angry without being outraged or obsessed. The uncertainty of Eric's situation only underlines his imperturbable sense of who he is. Nobody else seems to know who he is, though, or to care much, either.
That is always the risk a fiction-writer runs. A constant theme throughout Broadway Boy is the difficulty that so many people have distinguishing autobiography from autobiographical fiction. Most people simply assume that the "fiction" consists wholly in changing names and address, and maybe a few personal details. That's because most people don't understand how imagination works - even people with highly-developed imaginations. Friends and family will see themselves and either hate it or hate hearing that such-and-such a character isn't really "them." Fiction writers routinely invade other people's privacy (and I wish it hadn't taken me so long to realize that I completely lack the courage to build a career on such invasions). It's not that Eric has written anything that excites hostility, really; it's rather that his father and an old friend whom he hasn't seen in years are able to use the book to hit Eric over the head.
These men appear in the first two scenes, and they both appear in the last. The first scene is set in Manny Weiss's room at Maimonides Hospital in Brooklyn. Eric takes a break from his book tour to pay a visit to his father - and, naturally enough, to hear some words of appreciation or admiration from a man who has always belittled him. Allan Miller's Manny is so frighteningly deft at squelching Eric's longing for approval that I'm not sure I'd be comfortable alone with the actor. The scene is set up to be played for laughs, and it has no trouble getting them from a New York audience. (Experienced theatregoers need not have grown up Jewish, either. They're in on all the jokes by now, too.) Playing the scene funny is good theatre, because we're not sure where Eric's anger is going to go. Are we in for another one of those violently confrontational battles of blame? By the end of the scene, I was fairly sure that we weren't, and the next scene proved it. Set in the hospital cafeteria, where Eric stops for a cup of coffee and a moment to call his wife about running behind schedule - Eric leaves a message on her machine that economically indicates that his marriage is in serious trouble - this rather less funny scene courts the danger of acrimony, and, while if it ends on an unpleasant note, that note is impatience, not fury. Eric is no sooner off the phone than the other man in the cafeteria recognizes him. Eric is unable to reciprocate, and Ira Zimmer, a not-quite-loser played winningly by Arye Gross, has to identify himself. Eric may have wanted to draw closer to his father, but he has no desire to renew his friendship with Ira; Ira is the embodiment of all that he left behind when took his scholarship to Columbia. While Eric is spruce (without being quite buff) in understated but stylish jacket and good haircut, Ira is unattractive in the most blandly normal way. He is kinder-hearted than Manny, but just as quick to put a mean interpretation on everything that Eric has done. But the soap opera of unknowing condescension and wounded pride is cut off by something deeper. Having married a very religious woman, Ira has become observant, too, as he explains when Eric points incredulously to his kippah (knitted by Ira's daughter). The meaning of life is sounded throughout; Ira doesn't think that he has led an interesting life, but he's shocked that Eric hasn't had any children. But Eric's indifference to Judaism is firm, and only leads to irritation when Ira becomes insistent and refuses to see (or ignores) that he is making his old friend very uncomfortable. When the scene ends, with Ira calling out after Eric, we know that we've never seen anything quite like this play.
In Nina, Polly Draper has found a perfect role, and Mr Margulies has found the perfect Nina in Ms Draper. As her scene with Eric plays out, the elements of this marriage's failure are laid out like surgical implements prior to an operation. She has not entirely fallen out of love with Eric (and he is still very much in love with her) but she has steeled herself to realize that she cannot continue to live with him. He will go on seeing her as doubly unproductive, and go on forgiving her. If she doesn't publish any stories, that's not a problem. If she is infertile, then they can adopt. He loves her so much that he can forgive her these lapses. But Nina can't going being forgiven and she can't wear the label "unproductive" any more, and in this scene she tries every way she can think of to tell Eric that he is asphyxiating her. Alternately resentful, withdrawn, pitying, and wise, Nina dances to and from Eric's body in a ballet of eloquent dilemma. Except that, for her, it is not a dilemma any more. She has mourned the failure of the marriage, and it is time to move on. It is the most ironic rejection that I've ever seen.
After the ensuing interval, we find Eric in a very plush Los Angeles hotel room. He is not alone. My companion informed me that Ari Graynor was perfect outfitted to play Alison, a celebrity junkie whom Eric has picked up at his latest book signing, but I had a hard time reconciling her genuinely sluttish look with her professional-family background. If you can imagine Cameron Diaz struggling to become Jennifer Coolidge, you'll have a good idea of the postliterate Alison. Not unintelligent, but badly in want of focused self-awareness, Alison wants to make a movie about kids in space and then settle down to life as a producer. It's when Eric asks her why she doesn't make a book out of her movie idea, she looks at him as if he's drooling and sprouting tusks, and variations on the them of "Why read?" sounded earlier and more gently by Manny and Ira are trumpeted forth by Alison. Writing is adorably quaint - like violinmaking. Reading takes much too much time. It is all very dismaying and yet very funny. While the literary debate proceeds, interwoven by biographical details, Eric dances to and from the increasingly-disrobed Alison, obviously trying to summon up the desire to follow through on his pickup. Everything that she says, however, offends him in one way or another, and presently his lust is extinguished. She is terribly hurt when he calls for a taxi to take her home, but she still has the gumption to ask him to sign her copy of Brooklyn Boy.
The meeting with a Paramount producer who has optioned Brooklyn Boy, and critiqued the adaptation that Eric has been commissioned to write for the screen, is perhaps the most conventional in the play, but it is so full of strangely absurd notes that it never stops being very entertaining. We all know what happens when earnest writers duel with producers, but nonetheless it does seem novel that a Jewish producer - played wonderfully well by Mimi Lieber - complains that the screenplay of a book that she has optioned is "too Jewish." The outlines of the scene may be predictable, but the specifics aren't, and when the dismayed Eric is obliged to read the part of his father to a callow, unironic version of Owen Wilson, the towhead who will play the autobiographical role in the movie (Kevin Isola), we know that he is going to break, and he does. But it's a matter not of breaking but of breaking out. When he once again hustles off stage, we know that he is leaving a crazy world for the sane and clear-eyed one that he has made for himself.
In every scene of the play - muted with Nina but present - Eric has to deal with unimaginative assumptions about the relationship between Kenny Fleischmann, his alter ego in Brooklyn Boy, and himself. Eric can never explain the difference, partly because his interlocutors lack the subtlety to grasp what he says, but also because the difference, while real, is too shimmering to reduce to words. In the last scene, the matter is at last discussed intelligently, by Eric and his father's ghost. Eric is packing up his father's stuff - Manny died while he was in California - when the Manny himself walks on, calm as you please, and proceeds to have a very frank discussion with his son. What stuck with me most was Manny's genuine wonder that Eric could take a lot of words and build up a story, a believable world, out of them. "How do you do that?" Eric has an answer, but it is the only humdrum line in the play; what he ought instead to have done was to turn the question around on his father. Manny has just revealed that he not only managed to read Brooklyn Boy before dying but was really moved by it. With this confession on the table, Eric might well have asked how his father took a pile of words and built them up into a believable world. Writers certainly work much harder than readers, but both perform the same basic task, to some a chore and to others a joy. We let inkmarks spark our imaginations, and without our imaginations we could not read. Reading is the crown of the imagination.
As I have already suggested, Ira also appears in the final scene, but he is quite alive, and he leaves before Manny materializes. He has come to beg Eric to rejoin the community, in the observance of his father's death. Eric rebuffs him resolutely and finally makes it clear that Ira ought to leave (on the bright note of letting Ira take some of the Christmas-wrapped liquor that Manny stowed over the years), but on his way out he leaves something in the nature of Chekhov's celebrated revolver - not a gun, certainly, but an item that will certainly induce somebody to do something. I haven't made up my mind about whether it ought to have gone off, but it doesn't matter, because I'm not sure that it did. (March 2005)
Copyright (c) 2005 Pourover Press