The 20th century was the era of systematized memory, going at the past with scientific thoroughness, archiving, collating, winnowing, preserving. Proust, right there at the century’s top, caught its situation precisely, which is why Francophones always wince at Scott Moncrieff’s mistranslation of the title of Proust’s great work: What’s involved isn’t the emotional “remembrance of things past” but a clinical, orderly recherche du temps perdu, an inquiry into lost time. Every generation since Proust’s has lived with the past more strongly present, more widely available, weighing more heavily on it. Still, scientific though it may be, this cumulative sorting and recording of the past inevitably also has to be emotional, associative, freewheeling. The time gone by is lost; no amount of systematic research or analysis can bring it back. (“I want last night’s performance!” a Broadway producer once yelled at his notoriously erratic star. “That’s the one thing you’ll never get,” her acting coach replied.) A fond recollection, blurred by feelings, or a set of dry archival materials—those are the best we can do.
Donald Margulies’s new play, Brooklyn Boy, is an elegy for the past, an outpouring of indefinable feelings guided by two sets of archival data, one personal, the other literary. Brooklyn-born, Margulies has obviously lived the substance of this play: So much of it resonates from his previous works that it has the quality of an interim report, not so much a midlife crisis as a midlife stocktaking before moving on to the next phase. The sense of authenticity, of lived experience truthfully recorded, gives the event an intense emotional underpinning not necessarily inherent in the material. I liked the play and was moved by it, but even colleagues who didn’t and weren’t have seemed reluctant to give it a bad review; the personal commitment in it is too palpable. The rubric set up by Stark Young, reviewing a work by O’Neill, applies here: He said that what moved him was not the text itself but “the cost to the dramatist of what he handled.” Brooklyn Boy is immeasurably superior to the play Young was dealing with (the ludicrous Dynamo), but Margulies’s skill, in this context, only carries him so far; his heartfelt spiritual expenditure makes up the difference.
What limits Margulies comes in part from that second set of data, the literary. Not only has Margulies been here before, but he has innumerable predecessors. His story—the story of a Jewish boy and his father, of becoming a success and finding oneself out of place in the old neighborhood—has been told by any number of Jewish American writers, in Brooklyn and out. And not only Jewish writers: In a way, it’s the universal myth of American assimilation, of no longer being able to communicate with the parents who sacrificed themselves to make their sons better educated, ironically making communication all the more difficult. There are Italian, Irish, black, Latino, Chinese, Swedish, Armenian, and Polish versions of this story; the Russian, Korean, Haitian, and Pakistani editions are probably on their way. The Jewish American writers who preceded Margulies in this well-tilled field are of course particular influences here: Clifford Odets, Arthur Miller, and Herb Gardner hover over every scene, sometimes joined by Philip Roth, Bruce Jay Friedman, and a host of novelistic others.
That the field can still prove fertile for Brooklyn Boy comes partly from its authenticity of feeling, and partly from the subtle way Margulies uses his awareness of his literary antecedents. In our time art has often been its own subject, and Margulies has had a particular attraction to writing heroes whose aesthetic dilemmas mirror his own: the daydreaming son of The Loman Family Picnic who envisions a musical Death of a Salesman; the painter of Sight Unseen, out to retrieve the portrait that sums up his lost youth. The hero of Brooklyn Boy has written a bestselling autobiographical novel, inevitably also called Brooklyn Boy, and the play’s action seesaws between what happens when you try to take the boy out of Brooklyn, and what happens when his book goes back there and is read by the people its characters were modeled on. Neither situation is happy; there are resolutions, but they don’t seem to resolve anything. The play’s overriding tone is one of loss; it starts in a hospital room and ends with a prayer for the dead.
That the hero’s memories have been successfully enshrined in his novel is an equivocal triumph to match this equivocal tragedy. Three of the play’s six scenes are set in Brooklyn; in the three that take place outside it, the hero has a last, painful confrontation with the goyishe ex-wife he still loves, a mutually embarrassing hotel room tryst with a young fan picked up at a book signing, and a raucously satirical clash with the pushy producer and featherbrained teen star who are converting his novel into the usual cinematic processed cheese. Here, too, Margulies twists unexpected feelings out of the familiar; none of the scenes works out quite as you would expect, and the last, after edging close to blatant sketch comedy, shifts startlingly in tone when the featherhead turns out to be, of all improbable things, a convincing actor.
Speaking of convincing actors, I have no space left to praise the excellent cast of Dan Sullivan’s sensitive production. It’s their own fault: The depth and commitment in their performances are what reveal the play’s hidden power. Adam Arkin, who carries the taxing central role, deserves some special glory for the dogged beauty of the way he seems to accrue inner pain from scene to scene.
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