By Donald Margulies
Directed by Jim Petosa
Produced by Olney Theatre
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
Brooklyn Boy contains all the freshness, humorous quips, poignancy, and twists and turns of natural realism that you expect in a play by Donald Margulies. Add in Jim Petosa’s flawless direction, plus Paul Morella’s shimmering performance as Eric Weiss, supported by some of the finest actors in the region, and you’ve got a sure winner of a Washington premiere now playing at the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre in Olney.
The story of a writer’s homecoming, confrontation and collision with past and present realities, is told as a series of encounters that Weiss has with his friends and loved ones, including a dying father, a long-lost pal, a soon to be ex-wife on the East coast, and new connections to be forged in California. With each encounter, Morella shows yet another aspect of his character’s depth and range in a tour-de-force performance as the main character on stage the entire time, with the set literally revolving around him. This production seems tailor made for him, or maybe he’s just so good he makes it look effortless and easy.
Even Morella’s initial entrance relays so much in his weathered and weary movements, tenderly studying his frail, sleeping, already corpse-looking shell of his father, Manny Weiss, perfectly played by Howard Elfman. Having just portrayed the character in a Florida production last year, Elfman embodies the senior Weiss like he’s carrying him in his bones. In no time, their pleasantries spiral into subtle sparring matches, gentle jabs, and playful repartee. As Margulies digs deeper into recollection and memory and skillfully peels away protective layers, their verbal punches steadily increase, until the loud give and take ratchets up to just inches away from being a contact sport, prominent intravenous drip bag notwithstanding. It’s a fascinating duet, requiring precise pacing, timing and energy connection, and both actors are superbly up to the task
As the Brooklyn boy who made good as a writer, Eric Weiss steadily denies being the main character in the pseudo-autobiographical recollection of his life. He liberally uses all kinds of disclaimers and has an almost delusional detachment from how deeply the characters and events are based on him. The vehement recollections of a childhood friend don’t make a dent in the protective shell that Weiss has created for himself to escape from his Brooklyn beginnings. Ethan T. Bowen is joltingly real in relaying the disappointment of a buddy left behind, taking on the look, mannerisms and family business of his father, to the point of living in the same old family house, and is transfixed by how his wildly successful friend made it out and never looked back. It’s a familiar premise, but again, in Margulies’ skillful hands, the exploration of intention, choices, internal motivation and external relationships, all take on fascinating philosophical meaning.
Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Lee Mikeska Gardner as his wife determined to fight her way through her own emotional baggage to leave the marriage, or the inimitable Halo Wines as the pushy Hollywood producer as part of the California experience. Petosa gives both of these seasoned actors space to express their characters’ passionate outbursts, each handles the ebb and flow of their own emotional alchemy with skill and ease, pulling back to reflect and regroup, only to crescendo in even bigger bottled up explosions. Wines’ character is a pent up powder keg waiting for the next spill, whether she’s dealing with a recalcitrant Hollywood mogul or a rehabber on her house – her trembling intensity is palpable. A similar case can be made for Gardner who gropes her way through her own emotional minefields with touching effectiveness.
The two actors depicting the “younger” generation, Emerie Snyder as the potential groupie who ends up in Weiss’ hotel room and Paul Cereghino as the buff Hollywood flavor of the month more than hold their own to round out this formidable ensemble. Cereghino is particularly effective as the hot Brad Pitt-like wanna-be anxious to prove that he’s got chops to portray the young Jewish protagonist in the proposed screenplay. His audition scene within a scene with Morella is priceless.
Even the deceptively simple revolving set design by James Kronzer helps to propel the protagonist’s sojourn on both coasts, but even more significant is the fascinating use of the small walkway in between where for fleeting seconds Weiss passes a fellow character like a ship in the night -just another example of Petosa’s laser-beam connection with the story.
In addition to Collected Stories, Olney has also produced Sight Unseen, another Margulies area premiere. Petosa notes that “Margulies is a lover of structure and language; he instills a deeply held humanity into … his characters and explores the depth of the human heart.” I wholeheartedly agree. There’s a reason why his plays win national awards, including the Pulitzer prize for Dinner With Friends in 2000 and nomination for Collected Stories. Plus, the Loman Family Picnic is loads of thought provoking fun. Margulies is truly in a class by himself. Thankfully, the Olney Theatre can match that class in delivering a powerful production of his Brooklyn Boy.
(Running time: 2:14 with 1 intermission.) Brooklyn Boy plays through August 5th at Olney’s Mulitz-Gudelsky Theater Lab (open seating), 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road. Tickets: $25 – $41. For information call 301-924-3400 or consult their website.