It was Thomas Wolfe who wrote you can't go home again. Once you leave the nest, it is never the same — you perceive it differently because you are different — but what if, as Donald Margulies has started to suspect of late, the home leaves you? What if you happen along just as the halcyon days of your world are spinning into the shadows?
Margulies, a Brooklyn boy despite his full 50 years, addresses this mid-life mirage in the Brooklyn Boy that bowed Feb. 3 at the Biltmore Theatre. Last September, when the play was having its world-premiere run at South Coast Repertory in Orange County, he addressed it again in a wistful, thoughtful Sunday piece for The Los Angeles Times:
"To have come of age in Eisenhower-era, baby-boomer Brooklyn was to feel cheated of the glory days," he lamented. "By the late '60s, public school education, which had served me and my fellow boomers so well for a time, was no longer a panacea for upwardly mobile middle-class kids. The families of those kids moved upward — or outward — to the suburban promise of Long Island and sent once-solid Brooklyn neighborhoods spiraling downward. Once urban flight took hold, the last vestiges of my parents' Brooklyn vanished. Streets and subways were no longer safe. The Sheepshead movie theatre was converted into a roller-skating rink; the Elm Theatre became a bank. Ebinger's Bakery, famous for its chocolate blackout cakes, went out of business and Dubrow's Cafeteria, best known for its kasha varnishkas, closed its revolving doors. "If I long for Brooklyn, it is not so much for the geographical place where I spent my childhood but for an ethos that was already dead or dying by the time I was old enough to realize that something was amiss," he continued, putting a fine point on it. "When I look back at Brooklyn now, from the vantage point of the middle of my life, I find that it is a place that no longer exists, indeed one that may never have truly existed in my lifetime."
This is the sad psyche that propels Eric Weiss, the title character of Brooklyn Boy, through his unsentimental journey home. "He is a novelist who is having his greatest triumph in his late forties after many years of struggle, but his breakthrough success coincides with the breakup of his marriage and the death of his father," Margulies explains. "It touches so many of the themes people encounter in the middle of their lives."
And so many of Margulies's themes, too, one hastens to add. The author nods decisively and laughs. "It's sort of a compendium of Marguliesian themes — the search for personal identity, the relationships between parent and child, the present versus the past. It's all those themes, but I never quite looked at it all in this way from this vantage point before.
"I'm always moved to write something that I'm living with or observing or feeling strongly about. Many of the themes here would be familiar to those who've followed my work, but I've never made a story of these themes from this point in my life before."
Otherwise, the playwright likes to distance himself from his leading character and pretend this is no outright surrogate — "only in the fact that we're contemporaries and come from a similar place. The fact that he is a writer is secondary. It's kind of a mid-life examination play. On the whole, I'd say that our paths in life are somewhat different." And it is true that Weiss lives in Manhattan ("It's more of a psychological distance than it is physical distance from Brooklyn") and Margulies left the state some 20 years ago — for New Haven, where his wife, Lynn, became a general internist and he has taught Yalies for 14 years. "I'm a happy man. I love my wife. I love my child [Miles, 13]. My work is going well."
Weiss (Adam Arkin) should be so lucky, shuttling from dying father (Allan Miller) to childhood friend (Arye Gross) to about-to-be-ex (Polly Draper) to one-night stand (Ari Graynor) to glib studio exec (Mimi Lieber) to full-of-himself film star (Kevin Isola); the latter, who wants to film Weiss's semiautobiographical best seller just to play against type, flabbergasts the novelist by announcing, "I always find my character through my hair."
Considering the plot terrain Brooklyn Boy travels, there are an inordinate number of laughs along the way — "It's one of Donald's funniest plays," insists the inestimable Daniel Sullivan, who directs — but such colliding emotions might be expected from one whose first play, at the impressionable age of eight, was Herb Gardner's A Thousand Clowns.
Years later, when success had elevated Margulies to equal (or, at least, seeable) footing with Gardner, they met, became fast friends and spent Gardner's last emphysema-ridden decade in endless conversation. A Brooklyn boy as well, Gardner was particularly fond of the three Brooklyn plays that began Margulies's career — Found a Peanut (1984), What's Wrong With This Picture? (1985) and The Loman Family Picnic (1989) — and it was he who suggested that returning to those roots as an adult could be Margulies's remedy for the writer's block that developed after his Pulitzer Prize-winning Dinner With Friends.
Since those first three plays, Margulies had consciously written his way away from his past. Sight Unseen (1991) and Collected Stories (1996), both commissioned by South Coast Rep and considered for Pulitzer Prizes, sampled life beyond the Brooklyn Bridge.
Brooklyn Boy is his first trip back and the first original work he has had on Broadway. He made his official Broadway debut over ten years ago with a revival of What's Wrong With This Picture? and, he remembers, sitting directly behind him that night was the man who had opened his eyes to the possibilities of Broadway at age eight in the first place — Herb Gardner.
If Brooklyn Boy makes good, there will be two Brooklyn boys to thank for that.