The best dramatic writing surpasses itself. For an act-and-a-half it takes you on a journey, and then, just when you think you can predict what's coming next, it knocks you off your feet with a startling insight.
I can cite numerous examples — say, in Sam Shepard's Buried Child, when the hero's father Tilden walks into the family home with a skeleton of a baby, and we realize that some long-buried sin is no longer deniable. Or in Wendy Wasserstein's The Heidi Chronicles, when Heidi gives a speech at a prep school reunion, and we realize that the play is about feminism's failures, not its successes. Or in David Mamet's Oleanna, when the supercilious professor finally loses his cool and begins to pummel his nastiest student, thereby apprising us — and him — of the violence that's lurked beneath his surface all along.
These moments of stunning insight happen in other arts too — in film (see Antonioni's L'Avventura), in music (hear the slow movement of Beethoven's Third Symphony), and no doubt in poetry and the novel. They make experience of the arts valuable, addictive, truly illuminating. And they're the secret delight that keeps theater-lovers coming back for more.
In some authors, though, these epiphanies are missing. For example, in the best-known plays of Donald Margulies — Collected Stories, Dinner With Friends, and now, Brooklyn Boy — thesis and antithesis never give way to a higher synthesis.
All three of these plays are literate, original, intelligent, well observed; and all three never rise above themselves to a moment of true vision. So no matter how much we're entertained — and Margulies is always entertaining — we walk away from his plays with a vague dissatisfaction, as if we'd been forced to leave the theater a couple of scenes too early.
Maybe that's why Margulies' plays seem so adaptable to TV (Dinner With Friends was on cable not too long ago): No one expects a television show to do more than hold our attention. And it's why Margulies remains in the second tier of American playwrights, well behind Albee and Shepard and August Wilson and Mamet. These other playwrights at their best use language and action to take us to a realm beyond language and action. Margulies' plays (with the exception of The Model Apartment and perhaps Sight Unseen) take us on a lovely hike, but one that leads to no thrilling vistas. We enjoy the exercise, but still can't help but feel disappointed.
About Brooklyn Boy: It's the story of Eric Weiss, an author whose third novel — titled Brooklyn Boy of all things — has become a best-seller, thus rocketing him to fame and fortune. But Margulies wants us to know that success isn't all it's cracked up to be; that even the glitterati have problems they can't solve. (All right, you say this is a cliché; well, in this play Margulies works in and around a number of clichés, but so effectively, we don't mind their familiarity.)
For example, Weiss' father is dying of cancer, and when Weiss visits him in Brooklyn with a copy of his book, the gruff, sickly man is typically unloving and uninterested. Next Weiss encounters one of his best friends from childhood; but whereas the friend has become an orthodox Jew, Weiss has lost all contact with his religion and refuses to find common ground with his old pal.
Then we meet Weiss' wife, a writer who sees herself as a literary and reproductive failure — no recent publications, too many miscarriages — and is divorcing him in spite of his commitment to their relationship. Weiss leaves Brooklyn for Los Angeles, where he picks up an unaccommodating, difficult literary groupie, after which he meets with a film producer who wants to turn his novel into schlock.
The play ends with a perfunctory surprise — I won't say what it is, but those familiar with of The Sisters Rosensweig or The Last Night of Ballyhoo will see it coming from miles away — and then we're back on the street, happier but no wiser.
We've had the essential Margulies experience: two interesting hours, and nothing to think about.
Fortunately, the actor playing Weiss — Robert Gomes — does a fine job of convincing us that he has intellect and passion and a healthy desire to be praised for his accomplishments.
As his father, the usually excellent Michael O. Smith isn't nearly as persuasive: He doesn't seem a bit Jewish, and there's an irregularity in the rhythms of his speech that's off-putting. Bruce Sabath as traditional Jew Ira Zimmer isn't quite three-dimensional; his vocal range is particularly narrow, and it's hard to imagine him as the family man he's supposed to be. The three women in the play, though, are particularly winning. Celeste Ciulla as Weiss' wife, Nina, exudes both intelligence and pain; Sage Hall as teenybopper Alison is a catastrophe waiting to happen — too sexy, too naïve, too angry — and Jamie Day as movie producer Melanie Fine is wonderfully flattering before she demands the wholesale rewrites that will cut the soul right out of Weiss' script.
There's also a brief walk-on by Matthew DeCapua as a celebrated TV actor who's hoping that the industry will take him more seriously if he plays the lead in the Brooklyn Boy movie. What's most pleasing about DeCapua's performance is that, while we see him as a lightweight thespian, he's quite good when reading a section of the script. For once in this play, things don't unfold as we'd guess.
But usually they do. Not that we mind too much: At the efficient pace set by director Kate Alexander, the two-and-a-quarter hours of the show goes by like a mere 30 minutes. Margulies understands well how an audience needs change and variety to stay interested, and his scenes are just long enough to say a thing or two — and then they're over.
The show is pleasant to look at, too, thanks to Steve Mitchell's movable set pieces on an otherwise bare stage, Marcella Beckwith's attractive costumes and Robert C. Cordella's skillful lighting.
Everything's in place but that daring, difficult raid on the truth (or, as T.S. Eliot put it, "on the inarticulate") that makes some artworks indispensable. Margulies just doesn't go that far. His subject in this play is the readily knowable world and nothing more.
If that were enough, we wouldn't need art at all.
And so I'm pleased to have seen Brooklyn Boy. But I'd have been just as happy without it.