Monday, February 25, 2008

Brooklyn Boy

Appealing ‘BROOKLYN BOY’ at JCC

‘BROOKLYN BOY,’ now being performed in a joint production between the Jewish Community Center and Cuyahoga Community College Eastern Campus Theatre Arts programs, harkens back to the days when Jewish-themed plays were a main staple of Broadway theatre. Those days are long gone. The Jewish experience, that which centered on the Eastern European immigrant seeking to assimilate into the Euro-American scene is basically history. So, plays investigating anti-Semitism, trying to adjust to the land where the streets are paved with gold, and the overbearing mother or emotionally-absent father, complete with “Yiddish” accents, are seen less-and-less on the present day stages.

However, there must still seems to be a sizeable number of people who want to examine that experience. The opening night of ‘BROOKLYN BOY’ had a very sizeable house. And, in 2005 a staged version starring Adam, had a successful run in the Big Apple.

Written by Donald Margulies, who was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his ‘DINNER WITH FRIENDS,’ the story centers on Eric Weiss, a novelist whose most recent work has made the New York Times Best Seller’s List. The story, an autobiographical novel, has brought both fame and financial success to the boy from Brooklyn. The Brooklyn from which he has psychologically tried to divorce himself. He has turned from his religion, distanced himself from his family and friends, but mostly has hidden from himself.

We observed, as Weiss visits his father, a patient in Maimonides Hospital, Brooklyn’s “Jewish” Hospital. His father, who spent his entire life as a shoe salesman, absent from family, was never a warm man. His near impending death has not improved his disposition. While in the hospital Weiss runs into Ira, his former “best” friend. Ira, now an Orthodox Jew, tries unsuccessfully to reach out by offering the obviously unhappy Weiss, a serving of help through faith. Weiss’s frustrating attempt to seduce a young woman who comes to one of his book signings, his conflicts with his Hollywood agent, and finally a denouement after his father’s death, complete the scripts investigative cycle.

Though the script was not well received by the New York critics because of its so-called “trite” plot and that it deals with a “a standard son-trying-to-earn-his-father's-approval story line,” I think local audiences will like the concept. It’s filled with experiences and “hamish” (warm and familiar) ideas, and enough comedy and pathos to make for a positive evening at the theatre.

The JCC/CCC production, under the adept direction of Brian Zoldessy, gets every nuance out of the script. The cast understands their characters, playing them with just the right touch…not over the top, not overly dramatic, not pleading for laughs. The acting is universally top notch. Ben Needham’s turntable set is impressive and becomes an integral part of the action, highlighting the play’s structure of a series of six scenes in six different settings. Trad Burns’ lighting enhances the action and moods. Stan Kozak’s musical interludes are mood correct.

Charles Kartali’s Eric Weiss is so natural, it is easy to forget that he is acting, not the real Weiss. His development of the last scene of the play is so emotion-laden that silence proceeded the appreciative applause.

Bernard Canepari effectively develops Manny, Weiss’s father. It would have been easy to overplay the role, but Canepari uses the correct restraint to develop a man whose life was spent running away, hiding from honest feelings.

Noah Budin is both humorous and appealing as Ira, Eric’s former boyhood friend, while Dawn Youngs hits the right notes as Weiss’s “shiksa” (non-Jewish) wife, whose jealousy over her husband’s success destroys their fragile and childless marriage. Jane Conway as the girl in the hotel, Maryann Elder as the agent and Ron Cuirle as an actor who wants to play Weiss in the movie version of the book, are all excellent.

Is the play autographical? While contending that it is a work of fiction, Margulies does not deny that many of the characters and incidents do, in fact, relate to his life.

Capsule judgement: ‘BROOKLYN BOY’ should be favorably received by those attending the production. This is a “nice” play, written in a comfortable way, that gets a great production at JCC/CCC. I’d strongly recommend a “go see it!”