Motherless Brooklyn 

Finding that home is where the hurt is

You don't usually say this about playwrights, but here goes: Donald Margulies kicks ass. The Pulitzer Prize winner (for 2000's Dinner With Friends) hasn't found fame through a conspicuous, easily imitated signature style like a David Mamet or a Christopher Durang. He just writes superb dramas that maximize the tensions between believable people while capturing the nuances of human speech. At his best, such as Sight Unseen, Dinner With Friends and his new play, Brooklyn Boy, Margulies makes his craft look easy.

Since the play depicts a famous writer enjoying the success of a novel called Brooklyn Boy, Margulies invites a little autobiographical scrutiny of the work. Jewish Theatre of the South's production, directed by Susan Reid, finds far more richness in the play than the airing of professional grievances. You watch Brooklyn Boy's six scenes feeling that each could support expansion to become a fascinating, full-fledged play of its own.

After a lifetime of effort, Eric "Ricky" Weiss (David de Vries) finally has broken through with success and put the old neighborhood behind him. In two-person conversations, however, someone rains on his parade or otherwise voices recriminations. When he visits his ailing father, Manny (Barry Anbinder), in his hospital bed, Ricky points out that Brooklyn Boy debuts at No. 11 on the New York Times bestseller list. "It goes up to 11?" Manny asks, refusing to be impressed at Ricky's achievements, such as appearing on "The Today Show." Manny's grave illness puts even more strain on their relationship, which has grown awkward since the death of Ricky's mother.

Next, Ricky encounters Ira (Andrew Benator), a long-lost friend who claims to see himself in one of the novel's supporting characters. Ira embodies Ricky's feelings about one person: colorful, needy, gregarious. When the writer rebuffs renewing their friendship, the old buddy turns confrontational, demanding to know how Ricky escaped his home borough while Ira remains trapped there. Benator manages to make his role both likable and overbearing, while Cynthia Barrett provides comparable grounding as Ricky's estranged wife. Barrett conveys the character's barely contained bitterness and jealousy. As a failed writer, she's unable to appreciate Ricky's success.

If the play's first act shows Ricky wrestling with the demands of his past, the more comedic second half considers Ricky's brave new future, which scenes in Los Angeles suggest will be a post-literate world. A young heartthrob actor (Bradley Bergeron), anxious to play Ricky's fictional alter ego, makes vapid declarations such as, "I always find my characters through my hair."

Showbiz is about as big and obvious a target as any writer can find, yet Margulies avoids cheap satire. The young TV star shows respect and even awe in Ricky's presence, so that a complex, moving and unexpected father-son dynamic plays out between them, however briefly.

Stories about the price of fame that moan, "Woe is the writer's lot," don't always cultivate sympathy, but fortunately de Vries makes Ricky more than a self-pitying saint. While capturing Ricky as a well-intentioned "nice" guy, de Vries' performance almost imperceptibly withholds itself from connecting to the others, as if Ricky shares his Manny's tendency to carry himself at an emotional distance. He is his father's son.

Perhaps Brooklyn Boy's most subtle but intriguing element is that Ricky promotes a novel about Brooklyn while claiming to hate the place, and defends the authentic Jewishness of his characters while refusing to practice the religion. When he repeatedly insists that the characters are fiction, it's as if acknowledging their real inspiration would admit that Brooklyn has a place in his heart. Beyond its insights into the publishing business, Brooklyn Boy points to the larger theme of the love-hate relationship many people have with their origins. Even when Manny's critical of Brooklyn, he's proprietary about it.

It's as if nobody can attack our homes but ourselves.


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