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A Boy Grows in Brooklyn

The much-anticipated premiere of Donald Margulies’s “Brooklyn Boy,” which opens at the Biltmore Theater next Thursday as part of Manhattan Theatre Club’s winter season, continues the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright’s richly comic yet profoundly heart-aching meditation on the meaning of growing up Jewish in America. “I am a second-generation American Jew,” Margulies has declared on a PBS Web site. “I grew up among immigrant Jews, and I think that really has informed my worldview.”

“Brooklyn Boy” follows Eric Weiss, a relatively unknown 40-something writer who has finally achieved national recognition by writing an autobiographically inflected novel titled (what else?) “Brooklyn Boy,” through a series of complicated encounters with his deep past: a dying father still bitingly critical of virtually everything the son has accomplished; a childhood friend, now religiously observant, who feels trapped yet identified by the old neighborhood; a bitter, soon-to-be ex-wife who needs to banish him from sight. Margulies revisits the core (if familiar) themes that have absorbed him from the beginning, above all the troubled psyche of uprooted, unsettled Jewish artist-sons longing for some connection with the past, confronted by the ache of memory and soothing its pain with the salve of nostalgia. With “Brooklyn Boy,” Margulies achieves a kind of peace with both of his ghosts — at least, it appears, for now.

“Brooklyn Boy,” Margulies has announced, is dedicated to the late playwright Herb Gardner, author of the 1962 hit “A Thousand Clowns,” as well as “I’m Not Rappaport” (1986) and “Conversations With My Father” (1993). In a recent moving tribute in the Los Angeles Times, Margulies recalled that Gardner virtually adopted the young playwright as a spiritual son; their shared affinity is not surprising, for both Gardner and Margulies possess an extraordinary linguistic facility, an alert ear attuned to the idioms and inflections of “New York,” i.e., “Jewish” speech. Before his death in 2003, Gardner urged Margulies, “Why don’t you go back to Brooklyn?”

The spiritual son has now honored his surrogate father’s last request.

Significantly, in many of Margulies’s plays, Brooklyn looms as a sacred site of indelible memory and hazy nostalgia. “I was nostalgic for my parents’ and Herb Gardner’s Brooklyn ever since I was born,” Margulies confessed. Indeed, for Margulies, to be “from Brooklyn” confers an enabling identity as outsider, someone who can seize the potential of the imagined new world beyond Brooklyn, beckoning over the bridge, into the city. “The Brooklynite lives on the periphery,” Margulies explained, “tantalizingly within reach of Something Else, Something Greater, lying just across the river. It is precisely that condition that shapes personalities, fuels ambitions, and creates in some an overwhelming sense of restlessness and yearning.”

Still attached to Brooklyn, yet driven by an overwhelming desire to escape and a guilty anxiety about leaving, the artist struggles with and against the pull of parochial Jewish identity, haunted, like Eric Weiss in “Brooklyn Boy” (played with fitting exasperation, bewilderment and despair by the wonderful Adam Arkin), by the embittered Willy Loman-like self he might have been, indeed still might become.

In what is perhaps Margulies’s most important play, “Sight Unseen” (1991), revived on Broadway this past summer, globe-trotting celebrity artist Jonathan Waxman, a long way from Flatbush, seeks to fathom his current loss of creative energy (is his spiritual-aesthetic inertia a “phase,” or does its source lay deeper, in his Brooklyn past?) by reconnecting with his original muse, shiksa goddess-model Patricia, whose “dangerous” presence inspired him years ago, when he was an unknown painter still in art school. Jonathan also has just lost his father and is expecting his first child with his gentile wife; his pilgrimage to Patricia, living an ascetic life in the bleak English countryside, appears like an act of mourning, a way of sitting shiva for his own dying, spiritually lost soul.

In “Sight Unseen’s” poignant last vignette — in effect, the narrative beginning of their fateful relationship — we witness the comic-erotic fumblings of a still innocent Jonathan, Margulies’s gently satirical portrait of the provincial artist as young man. Startled by her unsettling sexual invitation (“You…scare me a little,” he confesses), Jonathan deploys “Brooklyn” as a defense against shiksa threat, the implied transgression embodied by Patricia. In a voice that shifts from honest confession to the familiar spritz of an increasingly inspired stand-up routine, Jonathan explains how, at least in his psychic universe, (Jewish) geography determines character:

Look, this is hard for me. It’s a major thing, you know, where I come from….You got to remember I come from Brooklyn. People where I come from, they don’t travel very far, let alone intermarry. They’ve still got this ghetto mentality: safety in numbers and stay put, no matter what. It’s always, “How’m I gonna get there? No, really. “How’m I gonna get there? and “How’m I gonna get home?” “It’ll be late, it’ll be dark, it’ll get cold, I’ll get sick, why bother? I’m staying home.” This is the attitude about the world I grew up with. It’s a miracle I ever left the house!

At the “end” of “Sight Unseen,” we witness the birth of Jonathan Waxman as the driven, self-consciously provocative artist he will become: from middle-class Brooklyn by birth, but no longer (we presume) of middlebrow Brooklyn in imagination. But has he ever truly escaped that provincial nest? ”Sight Unseen” ultimately refuses to resolve Waxman’s ethnic-filial dilemma. He remains blind to his own (eventual) failures of insight and empathy, immobilized by unresolved — because uncompleted — mourning. Patricia’s authentic gesture of love, deep into their relationship, despite its inappropriate timing (appearing uninvited at the end of the son’s sitting shiva for his mother, she offers Jonathan sexual gratification in his childhood bedroom, an act that shocks him, and results in his brutal rejection), ultimately remains “unseen,” unfelt. The costs of Waxman’s artistic success, Margulies seems to feel, are measured in longing and bereavement.

If, in Margulies’s view, “Sight Unseen” “was a play about leaving Brooklyn,” then “Brooklyn Boy,” he observed, “would be a play about looking back.” And indeed the mode of “Brooklyn Boy” is retrospective, its mood elegiac.

Beneath Margulies’s baby-boom nostalgia lurks the shadow of bent Jewish fathers — above all, the playwright’s own father, a Willy Loman-like figure who sold wallpaper for 40 years at Pintchik’s, on Flatbush Avenue. (Indeed, Margulies has acknowledged the crucial influence of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” in shaping his own often wickedly satirical imagination of middle-class Jewish life.) Bob Margulies and his vanished world of unfulfilled dreams looms in the playwright’s imagination and, in this respect, “Brooklyn Boy” represents the artist-son’s way of chanting Kaddish, a prayer (in the form of a play) offered in memory of a richly remembered world that continues to pull at the author’s filial-ethnic allegiances despite the inevitable chasms wrought by time and by self-consciousness.

In presenting intimate conversations between Eric Weiss and the other characters, we overhear the flow of resentment, the release of buried hurt that Eric’s visible presence tends to dislodge in others. At the same time, with each emotionally draining ordeal we witness the unearthing of Eric’s archaic Jewish self: the inside narrative of Rickie, the would-be nice Jewish boy who sensed the need to break away, to flee the ethnic nest in order to realize his literary-intellectual ambitions. Keeping faith with “Death of a Salesman,” Margulies allows Ira Zimmer, Rickie’s dissatisfied, now observant boyhood friend — brilliantly conjured by Arye Gross — to voice the cosmic Willy Loman question in “Brooklyn Boy”: “I had potential,” Ira laments. “How did you do it?”

Whereas in “Sight Unseen” Jonathan Waxman is a young Jewish artist who molds himself in unsavory ways to suit fashionable critical taste in a quest for wealth and notoriety, Eric Weiss in “Brooklyn Boy” mines memories of 1960s Brooklyn, drawing on the old neighborhood. His novel reaches number 11 on The New York Times best-seller list. Characteristically, Eric’s father, Manny, belittles the son’s achievement, remarking that his son, the famous author, is lucky the list goes beyond 10. Who knew? Yet whatever archaic grievances have come between them, as we watch Eric peel an orange and feed its sections to his very sick father, we observe the men’s unspoken but palpable love. Thus despite all the words, “Brooklyn Boy” conveys its depth of affect through silent but evocative gesture.

As for Brooklyn as embracing locale, it can only nourish the seething Jewish soul so much; ultimately, as Philip Roth’s Newark-born and raised Nathan Zuckerman well knows, the self-conscious Jewish artist, in flight from smothering middle-class enclaves, needs to locate his imagination in the creatively enabling (if ethnically rootless) space of filial alienation.

In the mode of Philip Roth, “Brooklyn Boy” — both Margulies’s play and his character’s novel — maps, in deeply personal ways, the complex emotional landscape of the contemporary Jewish American experience, exploring our own mournful nostalgia for the old neighborhoods, our need to settle with the fathers.

In the end, Eric achieves a spiritual breakthrough. Having fled “Brooklyn,” he is now able to mourn: for his father, perhaps for himself. In “Brooklyn Boy,” Margulies enacts a process of uncompleted mourning, chanting, with unfeigned love and empathy, Kaddish for a lost soul and for an almost forgotten, now mythic territory.


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