PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Brooklyn Boy: Roots and Hoots

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Brooklyn Boy: Roots and Hoots
Presumably lured by the initials—I can think of no other connection—Brooklyn Boy had its opening night party Feb. 3 at BB King Blues Club & Grill, a big underground black-box of an auditorium on West 42nd Street that is usually given up to jazz and rock concerts.
From Top: Donald Margulies; Adam Arkin; Kevin Isola; Arye Gross; Polly Draper; Matthew Arkin; Penny Fuller and John Patrick Shanley
From Top: Donald Margulies; Adam Arkin; Kevin Isola; Arye Gross; Polly Draper; Matthew Arkin; Penny Fuller and John Patrick Shanley Photo by Aubrey Reuben

On this particular night, the dark setting seemed right for a little post-show labyrinth walking brought on by the edgy Donald Margulies comedy just installed at the Biltmore. It concerns a late-blooming, best-selling novelist in mid-life crisis adrift on his home turf.

This author, named Eric Weiss (which, we are told, happens to be real name of Harry Houdini), returns to his Brooklyn roots and begins to encounter people who go at him like pneumatic drills, trying to make him or his newfound fame disappear—his dying and emotionally parsimonious father; his jealous and divorcing wife; the childhood pal he left behind in the dust; a college girl drawn to his celebrity; a high-octane lady producer chipping away at his screen treatment; and a miscast brand-name who would star in it.

"I take a pounding, no doubt about it," admits Adam Arkin, who plays the title role in much the same reactive mode that Jack Nicholson used in "About Schmidt," absorbing the absurdly destructive people around him and passing that information on to the audience.

"I like that the character grows through the course of the play. His philosophy of survival is something that has served him well up to this point in his life. If he's going to grow beyond that, he's going to have to learn to accept and remember some of what his life consisted of—and I like the fact that he gets to make some kind of peace with that."

During the group thanks-you that are a tradition at MTC opening nights, Arkin was specifically singled out for praise from Margulies. "I owe a great deal to Adam Arkin for being the mensch that he is—as well as an extraordinary actor. He really was a rock." And he also did a deep bow in the direction of the South Coast Repertory, which commissioned the play, as well as Sight Unseen and Collected Stories—"plays that went on to wonderful lives here at Manhattan Theatre Club." This is his fifth MTC production, his first time on Broadway with a new play and his 18th year with the South Coast Rep.

Like Weiss in the play, Margulies ducks the question of autobiography. "You have to have insight that you get from living, but playwriting is not reportage. I'm very proud of this play, and I don't think I could have written it any sooner than I did because I needed to be at my station in life, at my age, at this point in my career. I'm 50. We can say it."

He is now working on a new commission for South Coast Rep—"a play intended for family audiences. It will be a nice departure. I don't have a title yet, but it's my next project."

And, too, he has some irons in the Hollywood fires, where he has been burned before—hence, his stiletto-tipped take-off on Hollywood types. "My experience in Hollywood certainly colored those scenes, but they're not representative of it. I've met a lot of producers who are very smart. In fact, I think Melanie Fine, the character Mimi Lieber plays, is very smart. The thing is Melanie is very much a creature of her world."

Lieber, who played this barracuda in a benign key, seconded that motion. "Melanie is the only person in the play who doesn't really have any suffering—indeed, I don't think she suffers ever, not just during the time of the play," she reasons. "She's a combo of very specific people. There are a lot of women in Hollywood who have to be pretty tough and ruthless and are really great at being maternal and warm. They can make you feel fabulous, but they'll sell you for a song to the devil if it'll make a movie work better."

Having been in the revival of I'm Not Rappaport, Lieber can't count this as her Broadway debut, "but it's great to be here in a new play. We originated these roles. That's actually very meaningful—much more meaningful than doing a revival. This way, I put my stamp on Melanie. Nobody is going to say to me, `Oh, yes, I saw Mercedes Ruehl do that.'"

Kevin Isola, who ties a pretty mean can to the vacuous actor type, does make his Broadway bow with this show—as does Arye Gross (the forgotten buddy from boyhood), Ari Graynor (the hoped-for one-night-stand) and Allan Miller (the remote father at death's door). "Not to be cliche-ish," Isola says a little sheepishly from the heart, "but making your debut on Broadway is really a tremendous and magical experience, I have to say. It's something you have in your mind from a relatively early age when you decide to do it."

The out-of-touch actor he plays, flying in the face of miscasting, tells the horrified Weiss, "I always find my character through my hair"—which, insists Isola, is not as off-the-wall as it sounds. "That's not too far from the truth for some actors. Sometimes, the hair really informs you. Working from the outside in is a great way to get where you need to go."

Polly Draper is the only person in the cast who did not appear in the South Coast lift-off last September. She replaced Dana Reeve, who withdrew as the estranged wife after her husband, Christopher Reeve, died. It's Draper's first time back on Broadway since she followed Natasha Richardson into Closer—but in the interim she has been wearing hats other than as actress. Indeed, she has turned into a kind of cinematic Mama Rose, directing her sons—Nat, 10, and Alex, 7—in a movie she wrote called The Naked Brothers Band. "It's a documentary about their band, and my ten-year-old wrote all the music. There's a record deal, even." (Their father is Arsenio Hall's old band leader, jazz musician Michael Wolff.) "It will be released this fall. Uma Thurman, Tony Shalhoub and Julianne Moore are also in it. Alex is going to be a star." Mama Rose has spoken.

Director Daniel Sullivan made it to the party but not, mysteriously, to the press room—his mind may have been befuzzed a bit by Julius Caesar, which he just started rehearsing with Denzel Washington & Company—but he was very conspicuous at the Biltmore and even posed with Lisa Emery and Carolyn McCormick, whom he directed in Margulies' Pulitzer Prize-winning Dinner With Friends. Emery says her next outing will be "a Paula Vogel play," amplifying that with a laugh as Hot 'n' Throbbing.

Matthew Arkin, another Dinner With Friends veteran, was there to give sibling support to brother Adam, as was brother Anthony Arkin. The latter—who stage-debuted with their father Alan Arkin in the Elaine May opus Power Plays and lent some terrific support to The Waverly Gallery—is now focusing his attention on screenwriting, but Matthew is still in the acting game and will soon be seen as screenwriter Ben Hecht in Ron Hutchinson's play, Moonlight and Magnolias, which opens March 29 at MTC's City Center stage.

Underscoring the clubby part of Manhattan Theatre Club, the company likes to invite actors from its previous shows—hence, Penny Fuller, recently of Five by Tenn, and Ana Reeder, recently of Sight Unseen. Also attending was MTC's current crown jewel, playwright John Patrick Shanley, whose extravagantly praised Doubt moves up to Broadway (the Walter Kerr) on March 9. And, yes, the 10 best lists of 2004 plays, in which Doubt left no doubt where the critics stood, were not lost on him. "I got a big kick out of Time Magazine. I heard they rated it No. 1. I really felt that, for some reason. It goes back to when I was a kid." Like Adam Arkin in the play and Anthony Arkin in real life, he's doing a screenplay. "I don't want to tell the title, but it's about the Catskills."

At one point in the evening, a representative of Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz took to the stage and promised to bring bus-loads of Brooklynites over the bridge for a Brooklyn Boy night as she did earlier this season for the musical Brooklyn.

Proclamation in hand, she also declared that the evening was, clumsily enough, "Brooklyn Boy Opening Night Day" and that, although "Margulies resides elsewhere [New Haven], he will always be, in our eyes, as well as in our hearts, a true 'Brooklyn Boy,' because the play shows once again, that when you make it in Brooklyn, what else matters?"

The cast dances through their opening night curtain call
The cast dances through their opening night curtain call Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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