Back to “Brooklyn”:
Scripps Ranch Theatre finds universal themes in Margulies’ Jew-centric play
By Donnie Matsuda
You can take the boy out of Brooklyn, but you can’t take Brooklyn out of the boy.
That’s sort of the sentiment behind Donald Margulies’ semi-autobiographical play, Brooklyn Boy, which chronicles one man’s journey back to his Jewish neighborhood where he discovers that his current success as a professional writer doesn’t quite absolve the personal failures of his past. And as the fallout from these failures becomes harder and harder for him to ignore, he’s eventually forced to come to terms with himself, his heritage, and his faith.
(Left to right): Amanda Cooley Davis, Fred Harlow, Cris O'Bryon, and Paul Bourque. Photo by Ken Jacques.
Margulies’ 2004 play, currently receiving a solid revival by Scripps Ranch Theatre, follows novelist Eric Weiss as he begins to find mainstream success with the publication of his third, semi-autobiographical book, “Brooklyn Boy.” Fresh off the heels of his Today show appearance, Weiss begrudgingly returns to his Brooklyn roots to visit his ailing father (played by a biting Paul Bourque), who even on his deathbed would rather watch TV than read his son’s “hoity toity” novels. There’s a lot of tense back and forth banter as these two men – one old, crotchety and full of put-downs that may or may not be kosher, and the other middle-aged, aloof and trying to defend his literary lifestyle – try to battle it out over a hospital bed. Of course, these two men don’t see eye to eye until the play’s utterly predictable end, an epilogue of sorts that tries too hard to be touching and ends up feeling kitschy and overly sentimental instead.
Sandwiched in between are several scenes in which Weiss interacts with a colorful cast of supporting characters: there is his Yiddish-spouting, yarmulke-wearing childhood friend Ira Zimmer (a nebbish Fred Harlow who carefully trods the fine line between annoying and adorable); his soon-to-be ex-wife Nina (a curt and emotionally drained Amanda Cooley Davis); his late night hotel room fling (a precocious Charlene Koepf); and a Hollywood agent (an over-the-top Wendy Waddell) who tries to make his screenplay “less ethnic” by casting blond, buff actor Tyler Shaw (a believable Adam Daniel) as the Brooklyn boy himself.
(Left to right): Fred Harlow and Cris O'Bryon. Photo courtesy of Scripps Ranch Theatre.
Without a doubt, the true star of this show is the character of Eric Weiss, here played to perfection by Cris O’Bryon. Not only does he have the sheer stamina to keep up with Weiss’ kibitzing around (he is onstage for all six scenes of the play), but his strong comic chops and seamless emotional arcs are as convincing as they are captivating. O’Bryon handles his complex characterizations and humor-filled dialogue with ease, and deftly conveys a character that is simultaneously likable, detestable, and fully flawed.
And “mazel” to director Ruff Yeager (who does triple duty on this production, also serving as sound designer and set designer in addition to directing) who carefully mines the play for all of its quietly comedic and deeply affecting moments, all the while keeping the back-and-forth banter moving at a comfortable pace. Throughout the entire two hour play, Yeager keeps our focus where it should be – on the actions and reactions of Eric Weiss – while still giving the large cast of supporting characters their moments to shine.
Yeager also deserves kudos for his sleek and sophisticated set design, which prominently features a backdrop of tall, dark bookcases filled to the hilt with books and a handful of strategically placed vintage lamps. Overall, the effect is quite striking. However, one could easily have done without the clunky scene changes during which an entire roomful of furniture is hauled off and another roomful of furniture is assembled and placed while the audience watches and waits….Oy vey! That’s probably a minor quibble, though, in a production that is otherwise technically sound. Given that, a few more “mazels” go to costume designer Debbie Sullivan, lighting designer Mitchell Simkovsky, and technical director Mark Robertson for their uniformly excellent work on this show.
(Left to right): Cris O'Bryon and Paul Bourque. Photo courtesy of Scripps Ranch Theatre.
While its static scenarios and predictable plotline keep Brooklyn Boy from being a truly outstanding play, it is nevertheless a sincere and satisfying evening of theatre. With its moving, bittersweet dialogue and its fair share of character based chuckles, it may just be poignant enough to make you think about your own roots and what challenges and triumphs are inherent in leaving your past behind and connecting with your true spiritual identity.
For some of us, that takes a good deal of chutzpah. But, if Weiss’ personal journey is any indication, it might just be a trip worth taking.
Things to know before you go: Brooklyn Boy plays at Scripps Ranch Theatre through February 19th, 2012. Running time is 2 hours and 10 minutes with a 15 minute intermission. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm with Sunday matinees at 2pm. Tickets are $22-$25. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (858) 578-7728 or visit www.scrippsranchtheatre.org.