"Brooklyn Boy" From Parade Productions: A New Company Struggles With an Imperfect Play
Parade Productions, South Florida's newest theater company, premiered its first show in Mizner Park last weekend, but signs indicated that even members of the team weren't entirely happy with the result. During the intermission of Brooklyn Boy, a 2004 dramedy from Donald Margulies, an usher made a point to tell me, out of the blue and in a reassuring tone, that "the second act is more upbeat." As if I'd just sulked out of a documentary about Auschwitz, trying to locate a vein to slash with my ballpoint.
It was an unusually defensive statement, particularly for a show whose first scene generated a lot of laughs. At first, I thought I was being singled out as a critic, with my notebook full of imagined criticisms, but no: Ushers were feeding the same line to just about everybody, apparently afraid theatergoers would bail en masse before act two.
The truth is, both acts are of a piece with each other; they share humor and pathos in equal measures, and they're both decent presentations of a decent play. Brooklyn Boy is, after all, lightweight Margulies, lacking both the penetrating insights on marital life of his Dinner With Friends and the complex moral meditations of his Collected Stories (though it contains faint echoes of both). The plot centers around Eric Weiss (Avi Hoffman), a long-struggling writer of impenetrable literary fiction whose latest tome, the semiautobiographical Brooklyn Boy, has finally earned him popular success. The play follows Eric over the course of a few days during a national book tour, where he visits his intransigent cancer-stricken father (Sy Fish) in a hospital, stumbles upon a clingy childhood friend (Michael Gioia), visits his soon-to-be ex-wife (Jacqueline Laggy) to collect some belongings, and picks up a 20-year-old admirer (Blaze Powers) at a book signing, among other eventful detours.
Eric's book is a hit because he's finally writing from a place of truth: his childhood experiences under the thumb of an unsupportive father in the kind of close-knit Jewish community he's been running away from ever since. But his lineage is inescapable, confronting him everywhere he goes.
As always, Margulies proves expert at cutting through bullshit. Each scene is an examination of the false fronts we put on to appease the people around us, knowing that repressed truths will eventually surface, one way or another. Eric's interactions climax when ersatz pleasantries disintegrate into festering resentment, and it's often as uncomfortable to watch as it is easy to relate. Anyone who's had the pleasure of communicating with a stubborn parent who is stuck in his ways until his dying breath or who has gone through the unique and conflicting pain of divorce will find plenty of truth in Brooklyn Boy.
Still, the play's weaknesses are legion. Margulies' allusions to You Can't Go Home Again are all too obvious and clichéd, and even the most flawless production values couldn't save a pitifully sappy metaphysical denouement. The same holds true for a flimsy scene in a Hollywood office in which Candace Caplin and Ryan Didato trudge through thankless roles as a pair of one-dimensional stereotypes — a harried movie executive and a vapid television star, respectively.
But even when the material was stronger, I wanted more from a production that appears bereft of imagination. Hoffman, onstage every minute, seems to go through the motions, discovering his character's emotional core only in the last two scenes. Otherwise, it's a seemingly shallow performance of near-boredom, a repository of repetitive motions (and emotions).
It feels labored in part because of the lackluster direction of Kim St. Leon, who too often positions her characters staring blankly through fourth-wall windows, rendering their dialogue all the more theatrical. And with actors tripping over their lines so many times, opening night had the air of a preview performance.
The scene-stealing Gioia, as Eric's onetime friend Ira, does the best job transcending the production's bumps and bruises. His every gesture, stutter, and pained facial expressional resounds with miraculous realism. Praise should also be reserved for Laggy, convincingly portraying a small role that requires opposing emotional currents, and for Powers, an FAU theater student who brings charm, depth, and naturalism to her scene with the seasoned Hoffman.
Everybody else is lukewarm soup, easy to swallow but not too satisfying. If this sounds too harsh, don't take it from me; let the company's own staff warn you.
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