September 9, 2004
Playwright’s Alter Ego Returns Home
For Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies, "Brooklyn Boy" represents both a return and a departure.
Like several of his early plays, the drama explores obsessions culled from his Brooklyn boyhood: "The legacies parents instill in their children, the continuity of wounding that occurs from generation to generation, the relationship between fathers and sons in particular," the 49-year-old author said.
"But while my previous Brooklyn plays have involved the coming of age of various Marguliesian figures, I've never really let myself be a man in Brooklyn," he continued. "This is the first time I've placed a middle-aged alter ego on that turf."
"Boy" revolves around 40ish novelist Eric Weiss, who returns home -- actually to the hospital where he was born -- to visit his dying father, Manny, a shoe salesman. It's his first trip back in a while, and he's ambivalent: "I saw what Brooklyn did to my parents, and I knew I had to get the hell out of here," he tells a friend. "I saw ... the fear, the xenophobia, the suffocating double grip the Holocaust and the Depression had around their throats."
Yet Eric has just had his first literary success with a semiautobiographical novel.
"So he's at a juncture where he's realizing that Brooklyn isn't just a place he has to keep himself in exile from," actor Adam Arkin (Eric) said. "He's coming to see that whatever he has to offer as an artist is going to have to embrace who and what he was there. And what he had regarded as a kind of purgatory now can be a kind of key to his being whole."
It appears that Margulies made a parallel journey. Before a recent rehearsal at South Coast Repertory, he described growing up surrounded by Holocaust survivors who "instilled in me a kind of fatalism and morbid fascination for recent Jewish history." His American-born father, meanwhile, was an overworked wallpaper salesman, "physically affectionate but prone to mysterious silences," who lived in fear of losing a job he loathed.
These twin shadows of the Holocaust and the Depression "instilled certain fears in me, legacies I had to shake," Margulies said.
The playwright did so, in part, through his work. "The Model Apartment" (1984) is a kind of "Frankenstein" story in which Holocaust survivors have created a monster in their schizophrenic daughter; "What's Wrong With This Picture?" (1985) features an artsy kid named Artie who spars with his father; "The Loman Family Picnic" (1988) tells of a downtrodden salesman whose son is writing a musical comedy version of "Death of a Salesman."
Margulies' intensely personal (but not strictly autobiographical) work places him in a unique niche.
"[He] does not have the master work plan of an August Wilson ... or the political urgencies of a Paula Vogel or Tony Kushner to shape and drive his work from play to play," said Jerry Patch, dramaturg of South Coast Repertory. "Instead, his theatrical output, now more than a dozen plays, six of which have enjoyed prominent lives on American stages, has come from assessing his own changing vision of himself and the world in which he lives."
So it makes sense that Margulies eventually left Brooklyn -- and tales of restless, artist sons -- to explore midlife concerns. "Sight Unseen" (1991) describes a painter, catapulted to superfame, who struggles with his identity as an artist and a Jew. The Pulitzer-winning "Dinner With Friends"(1999) was inspired by Margulies' observations of "a succession of domestic catastrophes" in his circle.
"Brooklyn Boy" began with another observation several years ago.
"My wife and so many of our contemporaries were dealing with failing and dying parents," he said. Since Margulies' own parents had died by the time he was 32, inventing the fictional Manny was "an opportunity to create a fantasy of what an aged version of my father might have been like."
The character also "embodies so many of the generation who are now failing and dying; very often first-generation American Jews who were battered by the war and the Depression; who married and did all the traditional things and are now at the end of their lives with their generally overpsychoanalyzed children."
It was the late playwright Herb Gardner ("Conversations With My Father") who persuaded Margulies to set the piece back home: "I'd steadfastly steered clear of Brooklyn for a time in my work, because I feared I'd tread familiar ground," he said. "But Herb convinced me it was an exciting prospect to revisit Brooklyn at this stage of my life, not as a boy but as a man."
Perhaps the play is Margulies' way of acknowledging Brooklyn as a source of creativity, as well as shadows.
"'Brooklyn Boy' feels to me like the work of a more mature writer, so I'm glad I made the trip," he said.
The play runs Sept. 10-Oct. 10 at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa (previews are Sept. 3-9); for tickets, call (714) 708-5555 or visit www.scr.org. Margulies will speak Sept. 9 as part of Chapman University's Visiting Writers Series at Kennedy Hall. For more information, call (714) 997-6750.