Play: Brooklyn Boy
Group: New Jewish Theatre
Venue: Clayton High School, 2 Mark Twain Circle
Dates: December 9, 10, 12, 13, 16, 17, 19, 20
Tickets: $30-$34; contact 314-442-3283 or www.newjewishtheatre.org
Story: Eric Weiss has officially ‘made it.’ His new, somewhat autobiographical novel, Brooklyn Boy, has reached #11 on the New York Times best-seller list, which surprises Eric’s gravely ill father Manny, who thought the list only went to 10. The newfound success for middle-aged Eric, though, is a hollow victory. His widowed father is dying, his wife Nina has left him and he feels out of sorts returning from a book-signing tour to the modest New York City neighborhood where he grew up.
While visiting his father at Maimonides Hospital, Eric runs into his childhood chum Ira, who is a bit hurt when ‘Ricky’ doesn’t recognize his old friend. Ira still lives in the same neighborhood, runs his late father’s deli and is raising his own family in his parents’ old house. Nina, herself a writer, is a bit jealous of Eric’s achievement but is no longer interested in sharing her life with him. And a trip to Los Angeles for a book-signing, a chance encounter with a youthful fan and a meeting with a Hollywood agent and the actor who will portray Eric in the movie version of his book, all leave him searching for answers. Like Harry Houdini, the legendary magician who was born Erich Weiss, the similarly named Eric has a need to escape.
Highlights: Donald Margulies, who teaches playwrighting at the Yale School of Drama, knows his craft well (he won the Pulitzer Prize for an earlier play, Dinner With Friends). He’s the most produced playwright in the 13-year history of the New Jewish Theatre, which has mounted a superb rendition of this 2004 work. Director Bobby Miller’s cast of seven players works so smoothly across Scott Neale’s beautifully flowing set design that the six scenes in the drama’s two acts seem effortlessly to blend into each other, no easy achievement.
Other Info: Neale’s design moves the action across the stage, from Manny’s hospital bed to the hospital cafeteria to Eric’s living room with his estranged wife to a hotel room, a meeting room in Hollywood and, finally, his father’s living room after Manny’s death. Maureen Hanratty’s lighting utilizes different lights and lamps for various scenes to further mark them individually.
Miller’s direction is compelling and focused throughout, as each performer shapes his or her character with well-defined strokes of personality. Jason Cannon, as Eric, is on stage the entire time and is vital to the overall impact of this production. His powerful interpretation of Eric is one of his best performances yet, and a script-reading scene in his agent’s office is the show’s single most moving moment. It’s a superior and highly satisfying portrayal that captures Eric’s loneliness and emotional isolation.
The supporting cast also is outstanding, led by a wonderfully poignant performance by R. Travis Estes as Eric’s boyhood pal, Ira. Estes embodies both the pride in his friend’s success and the emotional pain he feels at Eric’s cool, stiff distance. There’s a palpable sensation of watching a man living what Thoreau called ‘quiet desperation’ but with dignity and honor.
Sarah Cannon masterfully fills Nina with remnants of love for her husband while also showing how Nina has determined to move on without Eric even while begrudgingly acknowledging his success and her lack of it. Peter Mayer balances outrageous comedy with moments of tenderness as Eric’s headstrong father. In Eric’s scenes with his father and wife, Margulies is able to engage and suspend the audience in uncomfortably familiar territory.
Kate Frisina brings bravado and bluster to the role of the fast-charging agent, Paris McCarthy is affecting as a vacuous but tender college student reaching for her one chance at a ‘star’ encounter, and Justin Ivan Brown is terrific as an airhead TV star who shows his substantial performing chops in the reading scene.
Bonnie Kruger’s costumes capture the personalities of each of the characters and Miller’s sound design of tunes by Simon & Garfunkel, Billy Joel and others shrewdly anticipates each of the work’s scenes.
Brooklyn Boy is engaging, compelling and fascinating and a real holiday treat.
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.