Finding Success, Winding Up Miserable

Finding Success, Winding Up Miserable

“Brooklyn Boy” brings an author home; “Joy” unites a stellar cast

David Margulies’ new play at the Biltmore Theater, “Brooklyn Boy,” is an ordinary play of no great aspirations to be anything other than it is. What that is, however, is charming and engaging with a strong cast and accomplished production values. It’s a nice night of theater for those not too demanding and not particular about formulaic pieces that never move much beyond benign entertainment. You won’t have a bad time by any means, but you also won’t see anything new.

This is essentially another man-discovers-himself story in which a middle-aged man, in this case Eric Weiss, a newly famous author, grows beyond his roots only to find that his fantastic life lacks a center. In order to move on, he must feel validated in the present but that means going back to resolve stuff with his father, who is dying. There is the divorce, the fling with the woman half his age and the old friend who helps Eric get in touch with himself.

Margulies is a good writer with a nice ear for dialogue and some exceptional comedic gifts, whose craft, at its best, keenly observes human failings, but at its worst, tips off the audience to exactly where the scenes are going to end long before they get there.

There are some wonderful moments. Eric’s father is a kind of “every dad” who doesn’t get what his son does and therefore questions his success. The scene where Eric meets with a producer in his office could only have been written by someone who has suffered that same distracting experience. Margulies also created the role of a teen heartthrob actor, Tyler Shaw, who appears to be superficial in the extreme but actually has the chops to do a serious role. Likewise, Margulies’ writing has the inside track on a dissolving relationship and the desperate sense of a man in such a relationship who picks up a young girl then doesn’t quite know what to do with her.

Yet these isolated moments, real and funny as they are, never really coalesce into effective drama. Daniel Sullivan’s direction never delves beneath the surface, and though that’s shiny enough, at the end of the play, it’s unclear what kind of journey Eric’s been on—where he is or even where he’s going.

Adam Arkin is completely engaging as Eric, but that’s more Arkin than the role, which often feels contrived. He is essentially a fish-out-of-water character who spends most of the play reacting to what’s around him, and though it can be funny, it also gets tiresome. We need to get deeper into the character in order to care. The surrounding characters each have their turns. Allan Miller is predictably curmudgeonly as Manny, Eric’s father. Polly Draper does a good job with Nina, the ex-wife. Arye Gross does well as Ira, the guy who stayed in Brooklyn, but the character is a shallow stereotype. The strongest performances come from Ary Graynor as Allison, the young woman Eric picks up, Kevin Isola as Tyler Shaw and especially Mimi Lieber as Melanie Fine, whose fawning over Eric while completely self-engrossed is brilliantly done.

In a season of over-produced showcase productions that generally leave one cold, “Joy” is all the proof you need that a good script, a phenomenal cast and a stage are all that’s needed to provide a thoroughly diverting evening.

Essentially a gay coming-of-age story, the plot surrounds a handful of characters in the process of coming out and falling in and out of love over one year in San Francisco. Told in flashback, John Fisher’s script is dense and sometimes overly talky, but it’s also fluid and charming. Fisher has a knack for writing strong characters, a wry sense of humor and a willingness to be playful with structure and narrative that gives the play both an antic energy and a real heart.

The cast is what makes this production so rewarding, and director Ben Rimalower has guided them well. Certainly there are over-the-top moments, but they always feel consistent with the characters, and the drama of being young and coming out, while gently satirical, is never demeaning or false. The comic timing in this piece is consistently wonderful. It’s a nice balance of different energies, which, unlike some of the other gay theater I’ve seen recently, suggests that there can be individuals within the gay community. Astonishing! But it’s just this dynamic and the struggle with what it means to be gay that gives the play the dramatic foundation for its more frivolous moments.

Harris Doran is terrific as Paul, the narrator. Doran is a dynamo with an unmistakable star quality playing the character who drives the piece. You really feel for Paul, especially when we see the older Paul commenting on his younger self. Doran musters an affection for and perspective on his character’s youthful excesses we should all aspire to. Christopher Sloan is excellent as Gabriel, Paul’s first romance. Sloan has a wonderful voice and a subtle manner that makes Gabriel both a foil for Paul and a character in his own right. Natalie Joy Johnson is hilarious and heartfelt in her portrayal of Kegan, Paul’s friend who discovers she’s a lesbian. Becca Ayers as Elsa, Kegan’s love interest, is similarly charming. In smaller roles, the other members of the cast—Ben Curtis, Gavin Esham, Brian Patacca and Gregory Marcel—are all accomplished performers who add immeasurably to the fun of this play.

While this play will mostly appeal to a gay audience, it’s rich, warm, funny and deserves to be seen, and your last chance for now is this weekend. It deserves a larger production as well, though it’s hard to imagine how to improve on the current cast.

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