“Two adoring parents would be overkill,” says Manny Weiss (Howard Elfman), the caustic and demanding father of novelist Eric Weiss (Paul Morella) in Donald Margulies‘ funny, pain-soaked memory play, “Brooklyn Boy.”
Eric’s mother may have given her son a loving home, but Manny gave him material. A Brooklyn shoe salesman who never left the neighborhood or his duties to family and Judaism, Manny took out all his frustrations and resentments on his son. He’s like a nail gun in a yarmulke.
At first, Eric rebelled, putting as much distance between himself and the Brooklyn Bridge as possible, geographically as well as by writing high-toned, esoteric novels that were critically acclaimed but commercial duds.
Then, Eric decides to mine the misery mother lode that is his father and his quasi-autobiographical novel, “Brooklyn Boy,” is a commercial and artistic triumph. Hollywood is calling and Eric is taking meetings in Los Angeles with studios and flavor-of-the-month male stars like Tyler Shaw (Paul Cereghino), buffed and streaked to Brad Pitt perfection. His wife, Nina (Lee Mikeska Gardner), also a writer, sees Eric’s newfound celebrity and absences on book tours as a way to break from a one-sided, stifling marriage.
The shift between life in Hollywood and New York is dandily rendered in James Kronzer’s revolving set, an undefined space that could be a terminal or a warehouse where the span of the Brooklyn Bridge looms outside a wall of paned windows.
At the beginning of the play, brought to life in a beautifully acted and visually dazzling production by director Jim Petosa, Eric returns to his boyhood turf to see his ill father in the hospital. Expecting to bask in praise and acceptance, Eric is instead immediately plunged into an acid bath. It’s like all of a sudden his clothes or his skin doesn’t fit anymore.
Manny is never satisfied — Eric should have worn a tie when interviewed on the “Today” show, the book’s too long, some of the details aren’t right. What’s riveting about their relationship is watching Eric’s reaction to the dying Manny’s rancid energy. As Mr. Elfman’s Manny rails and kvetches, Mr. Morella’s Eric seems to deflate and fold into itself, shielding his body from the all-too familiar blows.
Even an encounter with a childhood chum, Ira Zimmer (Ethan T. Bowen), becomes prickly as Eric is forced to confront breaking from his religion and the resentment and envy that inevitably comes when one friend escapes from the neighborhood and the other stays behind. The scenes between Mr. Morella and Mr. Bowen — who is particularly effective as a grown man stuck in childish ways — are dynamic and unsettling, going from convivial reconnecting to ripping out each other’s throats. Although the emotions run riskily high, an undercurrent of love runs through their heated exchanges.
In fact, not much of Eric’s fame is working out the way he imagined, which makes for many comic and painful moments. He takes a literary groupie half his age, Alison (the excellent Emerie Snyder), to his L.A. hotel room, only to discover the minibar-raiding, chirpily self-involved young thing thinks that “fiction is like, so over” and that she plans to exploit their night for her personal gain. A meeting with producer Melanie Fine (a hilariously one-track Halo Wines) doesn’t go much better, as she tells him his screenplay is “too ethnic” and that “imagining Jews in a book is much easier than seeing them.”
Mr. Margulies sharp, acutely-observed writing is a pleasure through most of “Brooklyn Boy,” although the ending is rather pat and contrived. Given Eric’s ambivalence about religion and his hectic, unfinished state in general, it seems highly unlikely that he would so easily go back to Judaism and recite the kaddish, signifying his return to his roots and community.
If anything, “Brooklyn Boy” confirms the outsider status of a writer, that longing to return to the familiar that perhaps never really existed except in the frayed, fragile edges of memory. You want to belong without belonging, to stand apart while feeling a part of something bigger than yourself.
WHAT: “Brooklyn Boy,” by Donald Marguiles
WHERE:Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney
WHEN: 7:45 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays, 1:45 p.m. Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Through Aug. 5.