NJT’s ‘Brooklyn Boy’ is moving, well-acted

Brooklyn Boy, by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies ( Dinner With Friends), has hit the boards of The New Jewish Theatre with a splendid production, featuring skilled direction by Bobby Miller and moving, superbly believable performances by the cast. Margulies, a native of Brooklyn himself, again demonstrates that he is a dramatist of the first rank. Brooklyn Boy invites comparison to some of the seemingly autobiographical works of playwright Neil Simon, filmmaker Woody Allen and perhaps especially the novelist Philip Roth, but deserves respect as a serious and memorable exploration of Jewish family, friendship and professional conflicts in its own right.

The play focuses on the land-mined emotional journey of novelist Eric Weiss, whose complex autobiographical novel, which he insists is just “fiction,” has become a New York Times bestseller, and has been optioned by a major Hollywood movie studio. Jason Cannon is outstanding in the emotionally demanding role of Eric Weiss, a brooding intellectual who finally achieves the literary recognition he has sought, just as his harsh and withholding father, Manny Weiss (Peter Mayer, in a stunningly strong portrayal) is on his deathbed at Maimonides Hospital in his native Brooklyn. If that were not enough for Eric to deal with, his marriage to his wife and fellow writer Nina (Sarah Cannon, in a textured, affecting performance) is falling apart. She is demanding a divorce at the very time that their financially challenging lives could be greatly eased.


The scenes at Maimonides Hospital between Eric and Manny, and at Eric and Nina’s apartment, greatly enhanced by the realistic sets designed by Scott C. Neale, crackle with believable tension. Eric, who has consciously separated himself from his ethnic Jewish roots in his native Brooklyn, cannot comprehend why his personal life is coming apart at the seams just as his professional success bursts upon the scene. There are parallels between the conflicts that Eric experiences with his father, who admits to being jealous of the adoration that his late wife lavished on Eric, and Nina, who also admits to being “jealous and competitive,” painfully aware that she has not had a story published in six years just when Eric has hit it big.

Meanwhile, Eric re-connects, reluctantly with his childhood Brooklyn buddy, Ira Zimmer (Travis Estes), who is convinced that Eric’s character, Seth Bernstein, is based on himself. Estes is terrific as Ira, who in contrast to Eric’s running away from his Brooklyn roots and Jewishness, has remained in the fabled borough and has become even more deeply observant of Jewish religious practices, urging Eric to say “Kaddish” for his father, a suggestion which the secularized and cynical Eric strongly resists.

Just as Philip Roth, whose characters Alexander Portnoy, Nathan Zuckerman and Peter Tarnopol have much in common with the author, but who has insisted that despite the similarities, they are “fictional,” so does Eric “protest too much” that he has “made up” his story out of whole cloth. Much great fiction is based on the author’s own experiences, and the works of Roth, Allen, Simon and Margulies are no exceptions.

When Eric goes to Los Angeles, he has two encounters, which bring him face-to-face with his inner conflicts. After a book signing, he brings a free-spirited college student, who writes screenplays back to his hotel room, without really knowing why. Alison, the college student, who raids the expensive mini-bar for Kit Kats, and who loves Gummy Bears, and who is portrayed with verve and spirit by Paris McCarthy, confronts Eric with the reality that the “younger generation” is less interested in reading novels than in going to brainless sci-fi and disaster films. When Eric meets with the type-A Melanie Fine, a Paramount producer, he is shocked when he is told that his screenplay and book are “too Jewish,” and need to be universalized.

And so, in the course of his two-act play, Eric Weiss must try to come to terms with the meaning of professional “success,” the complexities of parental, spousal and friendship relationships, and what is ultimately important as he goes forward. Thanks to Miller’s deft durection and the standout performances of a solid cast, Margulies’s most Jewishly-grounded work gets the first-rate production at the NJT it deserves.

It also helps that the NJT is back in the more hospitable venue of the small studio theater at Clayton High School. The sound quality and the set configuration were substantially improved over the large auditorium, which tended to swallow much of the dialogue.

Artistic Director Kathleen Sitzer told the audience that NJT hopes to be in its new, state-of-the-art venue at the refurbished Wohl Building of the Jewish Community Center, for its final production, Laughter on the 23rd Floor, June 2-20. In the meantime, Brooklyn Boy should be on everyone’s must-see list this holiday season.

‘Brooklyn Boy’

WHEN: Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays through Dec. 20

WHERE: Clayton High School’s Little Theatre, 2 Mark Twain Circle

HOW MUCH: $30-$32

MORE INFO: Call 314-442-3283 or visit the NJT Web site, www.newjewishtheatre.org