Brooklyn Boy: Escape From The Old Neighborhood
I'm not saying that middle-aged Jewish male writers from New York who have achieved a certain amount of success own exclusive rights to create works about dealing with the neighborhood they grew up in from the vantage point of where they are now. Of course they don't. It's just that they're so good at it. Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs, Woody Allen's Radio Days, Herb Gardner's Conversations With My Father... It was Gardner, in fact, who suggested Donald Margulies do the same. The resulting Brooklyn Boy may not burrow so deeply into this familiar territory to be considered a major work when compared with previous efforts such as his Pulitzer-winning Dinner With Friends or, my personal favorite of his, The Loman Family Picnic, but it's still a finely crafted piece of theatrical comfort food that sometimes surprises you with an unexpected seasoning.
Obscure novelist Eric Weiss (Adam Arkin), whose previous works have only gained an intellectual cult following, has finally hit it big with a semi-autobiographical best-seller, also titled Brooklyn Boy. Now living in Manhattan, Weiss continually finds himself a fish-out-of-water, respectfully wanting more than the simple home-life of the old neighborhood while being a neophyte in dealing with the challenges of instant celebrity. Through a series of 2-person scenes (with the exception of one brief episode involving a 3rd person) we see how Weiss, like his namesake ("Eric Weiss" is the birth name of Harry Houdini.), has mastered escaping, but is still in search of a comfortable place to settle.
At the hospital bed where his dad (Allan Miller) is dying of prostate cancer, Weiss tries to cheer him up with a copy of his new book, dedicated to his "mother and father". "Where's our names?" is the old man's dissatisfied reply. Neither is he impressed with the book's debut as number eleven on the New York Times bestseller list. ("I thought they only went to ten. It's a good thing they made the list longer.")
In the hospital cafeteria he runs into long-lost childhood friend Ira Zimmer (Arye Gross), also tending to his dying father. While trying to be cordial, Weiss is obviously uncomfortable watching Zimmer leading a life centered around family and religious tradition; the life he might very well have led himself. Instead, his wife, Nina (Polly Draper), a far less successful writer, is leaving him.
With nearly all ties to New York severed, he finds himself in a Los Angeles hotel room where, after a sparsely attended book signing, he's brought the young and attractive literary groupie Alison (Ari Graynor) for a tryst. After she raids the mini-bar bar, literally like a kid in a candy store, Allison turns out to be less of a hero-worshiper than he had hoped for, as she sizes up his mid-life crisis in a few scant sentences and explains how quaint and unnecessary her generation considers his accomplishments. ("Don't get me wrong. I love books. I really respect people like you who still bother to write them.)
His stay in So-Cal becomes more disheartening when the film executive handling the movie version of Brooklyn Boy (Mimi Lieber) tries to persuade him to play down the Jewishness in his screenplay adaptation. ("It's one thing to be Jewish in a book. It's another thing in a movie. Imagining Jews is much easier than seeing them.") On top of that, she has the fabulous news that a popular, and extremely goyish boy-toy actor (Kevin Isola) is dying to play the lead. When the sun-baked heart-throb shows up for an impromptu reading, Margulies ends a standard "Hollywood" comedy scene with an unexpected twist.
I'll leave it to the playwright to explain where our artist escapes to next.
Director Daniel Sullivan smoothly keeps his ensemble balanced with appropriate doses of tension, broad comedy and pathos. Some scenes, particularly those which deal with Jewishness, are nearly borscht belt in nature, though always grounded in reality. Arkin is understated, but boiling inside, compared with the more animated performances of this very fine cast.
Set designer Ralph Funicello supplies a red-bricked Brooklyn neighborhood backdrop behind every location; a continual reminder that the solid foundation of the protagonist's upbringing is ever-present. Thomas Wolfe wrote of a similar situation in his novel, You Can't Go Home Again, a phrase often used in describing plays such as Brooklyn Boy. Perhaps the reason you can't go home again is because, in many ways, you can never really leave.