“You can’t go home again,” and other lessons you probably already knew
By Jenny Lower 05/24/2012
One of the easiest but most fatal mistakes a production can make is picking the wrong play. Donald Margulies’ Brooklyn Boy doesn’t look like the wrong play. After all, Margulies won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for Dinner with Friends about marital bliss gone awry.
But the zeitgeist Margulies tapped with his former script is sorely missing from Boy, now playing at the Ojai Art Center. Steve Grumette’s low-key production proceeds like an afternoon ramble through the borough — scenic, with a few highlights here and there, but too slow to get your heart racing and just a little bit tiring.
Eric Weiss (Buddy Wilds) is a literary novelist who has returned to Brooklyn to visit his dying father (Howard Leader). Having sloughed off his Jewish roots years ago, he’s now on a tour to promote his third book, a semi-autobiographical account of his boyhood. The play unfolds as a series of vignettes over four days spent in Brooklyn, where Weiss reconnects with an old friend and the woman who is divorcing him, and in Los Angeles, where Weiss travels for a book signing and meets with a slick Hollywood producer.
These encounters are meant to illustrate the competing poles of our hero’s life — professional versus personal, past versus present — but the episodic, dialogue-driven structure prevents the plot from building any real momentum. The secondary characters, and even Weiss himself, remain broad sketches of familiar stereotypes rather than flesh-and-blood people we can believe in: the Tiger Beat coverboy; the dorky childhood friend; the bitter ex-wife; the gruff, hard-to-please father. At its center is Weiss, ambling along toward predictable revelations with less introspection than you might expect from someone whose book just landed 11th place on the New York Times bestseller list.
The sluggish pace weighs on some otherwise fine performances. Wilds carries off the lead role with aplomb, looking every inch the urban sophisticate in his black T-shirt and charcoal sports coat. It’s easy to underestimate him, until you see him share the stage with less accomplished actors. His assured manner and natural grace underscore how far Weiss has come from his childhood. But such a contained performance is best served by a hyperkinetic supporting cast. The production hits its high notes when Wilds plays straight man to more effusive castmates, as he does opposite John Medeiros as his friend Ira and, at times, Howard Leader as his father. As the through-line among stand-alone scenes, however, both Weiss and Wilds lack the vitality to carry the play.
Though Leader has some strong early moments as the crotchety elder Weiss, by his second appearance he loses both the accent and demeanor that make him so effective. Medeiros is the show’s treasure as Ira, the friend conflicted by his choices to stay in Brooklyn, raise five kids and run his father’s deli. Medeiros pulls off Ira’s potent mix of schlubbiness and pathos so effectively that I didn’t want his scenes to end. Also upping the energy and humor level is Kytriena Payseno as a 20-something “literary groupie” Weiss brings back to his hotel room, who longs only for a great story to tell her friends.
A final word on set design: Even excusing a modest budget, the sets share a dreary uniformity that weakens the story themes. The dingy color scheme works just fine for a Brooklyn hospital or cafeteria, but it’s distracting and confusing when the setting is a sleek Hollywood office, a hip L.A. hotel, or even Weiss’ own East Village apartment. We miss out on the sense of alienation he experiences in these unfamiliar surroundings, and so lose the significance of his journey back to himself.
Plays that read well on the page don’t always lend themselves to production, and unfortunately that proves especially true here. Onstage, conversations about Brooklyn Boy hint at a rich coming-of-age novel packed with schoolyard humiliations, possible drug abuse and filial guilt. If only we could have seen some of these moments ourselves.
Brooklyn Boy, through June 17 at Ojai Art Center, 113 S. Montgomery St., Ojai. For reservations, 640-8797 or firstname.lastname@example.org.