Papa Can You Hear Me?

Photo by Ken Howard/SCRFathers! Sons! Jews! Guilt! Writers! New York! Yeah, we know—like these subjects haven't been mined in a theatrical work before. But hey, when you're Broadway-bound like Donald Margulies' Brooklyn Boy is—the play premieres there in a couple of months—it certainly helps to know your audience. All that's missing are the queers!

Queers or no, it's still a lot of fun—Margulies has penned some sharp one-liners that make him sound like an old Catskills vet. Even the moments that could have easily been overwrought with sentimental squishiness thankfully aren't (and who wouldn't expect overwrought sentiment from a play whose quick-shot summary would be “man seeks love from distant father”?).

It begins with Eric Weiss (Adam Arkin) sitting at the hospital bedside of his dying pop, Manny (Allan Miller). He's there to give him a copy of his first best-selling semiautobiographical novel—unsurprisingly titled Brooklyn Boy. Eric wants validation from the old man, who belittled him throughout his upbringing and isn't about to stop now, no matter how successful his son is or how dead he gets, putting Eric down with a stream of cruel-but-funny-as-hell retorts and snappy comebacks. “What do you got to say that'll take 384 pages?” Manny asks. Even the book's dedication isn't good enough for him (“'To my mother and father'—where are our names?!?”).

A fast-rising writer he might be, but after Eric leaves his dad, we meet a gamut of characters who are not only similarly unimpressed by Eric's accomplishments, but they're also pretty damn hostile. Old-school chum Ira (Arye Gross) is happy for him, but he can barely mask his jealousy—Eric remembers Ira as a good artist, but 25 years after they last talked, Ira's raising his family in his parents' house and runs the same deli his hated father ran (made worse for him whenever longtime customers tell him how much he looks like the bastard). Ira never “made it” like his old buddy, but he's happy Eric modeled one of his novel's characters after Ira, even though Eric insists he didn't.

From there, we move on to Eric's soon-to-be-ex-wife (Dana Reeve)—also a writer, but a failed one—who blames Eric for everything that went wrong in their marriage. There's a half-his-age fangirl (Ari Graynor) Eric meets at a reading in LA, who tells him fiction is “a dying art” and brands books “useless” (ultimately, all she really wants to do is screw someone famous). His agent (Mimi Lieber) is the only person genuinely nice to him—he pays her to kiss his ass, so she has to be. And when Eric not only finds out that a Stereotypically Evil Hollywood Movie Studio wants to make his Jewish characters black for the film version, but also that the actor who'll be playing him in the film is a young, blond-tipped surfer dude who can't pronounce Jewish names (Kevin Isola), Eric finally breaks down, the weight of his “success” practically flattening him.

Brooklyn Boy is partially about fame and how even the smallest amounts of it can not only fuck you up, but also everyone else around you, as friends, relatives, even total strangers try to filter their lives through yours—not the most ideal of situations, especially when you're not even sure if the success you have is completely deserved (Eric is both complemented and damned, often by the same person, often in the same sentence). Yet by the time Eric can reach any semblance of personal relief, you get the feeling he'll always be miserable. But as his father at one point notes, that same misery can make a pretty good book. Not a half-bad piece of theater, either.

Brooklyn Boy at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 N 8:30 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 N 7:30 p.m. Through Oct. 10. $19-$56.

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