A Family Affair

Special Features   A Family Affair The sibling dynamics explored in Simon Mendes da Costa's Losing Louie resonate deeply with star Matthew Arkin.
Matthew Arkin in Losing Louie
Matthew Arkin in Losing Louie Photo by Joan Marcus

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Reggie Ellis drives a Ferrari - a red Ferrari Dino 246 GTB. Matthew Arkin drives a Nissan Quest minivan - "that I'm in the process of trading in," he says, "for something that uses less gas."

Reggie Ellis is a lawyer. Matthew Arkin was once a lawyer, for five years - "my dirty secret."

Matthew Arkin and his wife, Pamela Newkirk, and their two young children, a boy and a girl, live in Scarsdale, New York.

Reggie Ellis and his wife Elizabeth live somewhere in "Westchester," at least in Losing Louie, the Broadway version (and spelling) of Simon Mendes da Costa's London hit, Losing Louis. Reggie and Elizabeth are the parents of boy-girl twins who are now 18 years old. Reggie Ellis has a brother named Tony whose mother was not Reggie's mother. Matthew Arkin has a brother named Tony whose mother, actress-author Barbara Dana, was not Matthew's mother. ("But Barbara raised me from the time I was seven until yesterday," says 46-year-old Arkin. "We talk on the phone almost daily. I get much more time with her than with my mother in California.")

Matthew Arkin also has a brother named Adam, three-and-a-half years older than Matthew. Adam and Matthew - two of the three sons of papa Alan Arkin - were going to play Tony and Reggie Ellis in the Manhattan Theatre Club production of Losing Louie at the Biltmore Theatre - until, in Matthew's words, "the vagaries of show business" came along and Adam had to drop out for another commitment.

The actor says these words over a tortilla in Greenwich Village on a day when - between performances Off-Broadway in A.R. Gurney's recent Indian Blood - he has a poster shoot for the upcoming Louie. "I don't usually look like this," he says, apologizing for the photo-date makeup and slicked-down, silvering brown hair. "I usually just roll right out of bed . . ."

The Louie of Losing Louie (Scott Cohen) was an equal-opportunity womanizer, strewing his seed impartially in Jewish and non-Jewish directions. What has brought his sons Reggie and Tony (Mark Linn-Baker) and their wives (Patricia Kalember, Michele Pawk) into the same room for the first time in ten years - ten years of Tony's envy of all the breaks handed all along the line to Reggie - is their father's death, an occasion during which smart-ass Reggie insists on telling the dumbest possible funeral-parlor joke in the worst possible taste.

"When I read the script," says Arkin - it had come to him from his brother, who'd received it from director Jerry Zaks - "it put me in mind of a lot of different things I'd been through with my brothers, a million different relationships - as happens with all brothers. In my family, as in a lot of families, events from the past still have repercussions today. I love how the play explores this theme in a humorous way."

Yes, Mr. Arkin, and one of the strands that weaves strongly throughout Losing Louie, first to last, is the Jewish-or-not-Jewish stuff.

"Oh," said the actor, tongue gravely in cheek, "I wouldn't know anything about that. I married a Protestant - got married in a Lutheran church in Glen Head, Long Island - and Pamela and I kept talking about what we were going to do about kids. Then Sam came along - he's eight now - and we still didn't know what we were going to do.

"Then 9/11 came along - and we went and spoke to a rabbi. The rabbi had a class Thursday nights at Temple Israel, New Rochelle. Pamela said, 'I'll take it with you' - and after ten weeks, as we were driving home, she turned to me and said, 'This is how we're going to raise the kids.' So from my never having been in a temple I'm now on the board of that temple - and was bar mitzvahed last year."

The non-religiousness of Matthew's boyhood goes back beyond his father and mother - Alan Arkin and Jeremy Wakefield - to his grandparents, David and Beatrice Arkin.

"Sure, I knew them. They were communists. And they were great. My grandfather was an artist, a writer, a jack of all trades, one of those crazy, fantastic, brilliant idealists. His brother-in-law was Earl Robinson, who wrote the music of 'Ballad for Americans' [words by John Latouche, famously recorded by Paul Robeson, 1939]. My grandfather wrote a children's book, 'Black and White,' and he and Earl Robinson wrote a huge hit song…" The actor breaks off to suddenly sing out, in a booming voice:

The world is black, the world is white,

It turns by day and then by night…

"My grandfather, who was broke all his life, made a lot of money at the end of it out of that song. Well, Judaism skipped a few generations in my family, but in this play there is the quality of coming back to discover who you really are and the different levels of people who are or are not Jewish."

It would have been interesting - would it not? - had the brothers Arkin played together as the brothers Ellis. "Yeah, it would have. I was a little disappointed - and I hope it will happen some day. I must say my disappointment is balanced by the joy of working with Mark Linn-Baker. He's a wonderful actor and the first person I understudied when I broke in on Broadway in Laughter on the 23rd Floor [by Neil Simon, directed by Jerry Zaks, 1993-94]."

Arkin understudied three roles in that comedy about Sid Caesar's team of writers - "the part I made my Broadway debut in being that of Lucas, based on Neil Simon himself." Two beats. "My agent said, 'I don't think there's anything in that play you're good for.'" Beat. "So I got a new agent - and got the job."

The brothers Arkin have, in fact, acted together in something. When Matthew was eight going on nine and Adam was eleven, they were the complete cast of "People Soup," a 12-minute film about two kids in a kitchen written, directed and produced by their father. "I will say to all producers and directors, if you don't put me and my brother in a piece together again, you're missing out on a great opportunity."

Hey, Reggie, you can tell your horrible funeral-parlor joke now. It's all in the family.

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