Are we our brother’s/sister’s keepers? There is a scripture that says a person who doesn’t take care of family is worse than an infidel. But do these tenets always apply? And how do we take care of family? Just supply their external needs? Or should we also connect with them on a truthful, soulful level which will nourish and heal frailties?
Pultizer-Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies in his new play Long Lost examines filial relationships, family dynamics and the assumptions and values that despoil love and forgiveness within families. Directed by Daniel Sullivan in a tight framework of fine performances by the actors, the twists in the arc of development reveal the inner trauma and turmoil in some families that often are never resolved. The only hope might be in the next generation where there is the possibility of redemption and love.
David (the ambivalent, deceptive, hypocritical and coolly raging Kelly AuCoin) lives a life of success as a Wall Street consultant who royally supports his socially conscious wife Molly (Annie Parisee gives a mesmerizing performance) who is a philanthropist. Their son Jeremy (Alex Wolff gives a thoughtful, sensitive portrayal) who is going to Brown, enjoys his promising life and is close to his parents whom he is visiting for Christmas recess.
Into this idyllic family situation intrudes the estranged, ne’er-do-well, older brother Billy (the wonderful Lee Tergesen). At the play’s opening, he sits symbolically in the dark waiting for his brother David in his Wall Street office. He is waiting to “say hello,” to reconnect, to redeem himself and more. When David turns on the lights, the last person he expects to see is Billy. AuCoin’s David reacts with shock, annoyance, suspicion, aloofness. These layers of darkness pull back as we note the conversation between the two brothers. There are recriminations; David wants Billy gone; there is no love lost between them, and if there is any empathy it is non-existent.
David unloads on Billy. Apparently, from his self-righteous, exalted position of having helped Billy attempt to overcome and get through his addictions and the destruction they’ve wrought, he has lost patience, and intends to stop any further enabling of his brother. Indeed, at this point, we respect David’s probity, his former magnanimity with Billy and his measured and enviable success.
Not that any time would be a good time for Billy to land on David’s doorstep to be invited into a warm family situation, this is the most inopportune of times, David suggests. It is the night of Molly’s fundraiser, which Billy cannot be invited to as it’s a black tie affair. And Billy eschews the proffered money that Billy usually gets, for example, the last time David heard from him two years ago when he “hit him up” and wired funds. But nothing works to put Billy off and then Billy unloads on David. He is dying and is coming to David and the family for help and support. David has the money, most probably, to rent a studio for Billy, but he will not. Instead, he invites him home.
From the outset we note the differences between the two brothers and wonder if one is a changeling because he is the antithesis of success, happiness and inner tranquility, so unlike David. Apparently, Billy’s addictions unraveled his soul and made him dependent upon David for money, who at one point banished him. Billy’s behaviors landed him in jail; the reason is tragic, but most probably caused because of his addiction which made him irresponsibly negligent and insensate. Indeed, despite his personable, charming open nature, it is obvious that he is a “bad seed.” And if he is allowed to stay with David and the family, what upheavals will he create? David is clearly wary of Billy for good cause. However he takes him in because of guilt. Billy has nowhere to go and he has cancer. What would David want someone to do for him if he were in Billy’s shoes?
In the subsequent scenes, Billy meets his nephew Jeremy and the scene between them is beautifully rendered. Indeed, all the scenes between uncle and nephew are heartfelt, and the pathos and sensitivity of the actors bring out the humanity and soulfulness in the character portraits. Through Jeremy’s eyes we understand another side of Billy; the fun loving, humorous, affable individual who is attractive, adorable and not “a bum.” Through Jeremy’s perspective, his parents should not be hard on his uncle, and certainly should let him stay to celebrate Christmas. The last time he remembers being with his uncle, he was nine. Jeremy doesn’t judge Billy as his parents do; he does not have the information or the experience with him that they have.
However, Billy being Billy provokes both Molly and David who chafe at his presence. When Billy lands a zinger truth on David that cuts his soul (this actually is hypocritical as we later find out and ego on David’s part) David kicks out Billy before Jeremy can say “goodbye.” Jeremy, the moral/familial conscience of the family, counters, “What kind of people are you?”
The irony is that Molly’s charity “Safe Harbor” to help women trapped in violent relationships, appears to indicate she has a soft heart with regard to supporting people. However, this softness stops where Billy is concerned. Easy to help strangers, but family? Hit the road Jack! Billy has apparently affronted Molly in the past and she will not forgive him. She refuses to have him stay with them for the holidays and looks up places to help him find the support he needs with his condition. Of course, Billy doesn’t help by consuming all the beer in their fridge and smoking weed and giving some to Jeremy who warns him Molly doesn’t want any smoke in the house. Humorously, it is the first thing she notices when she walks in with David after the fundraiser.
Margulies unwraps the comedy and the drama gradually with key details that allude to the swirling undercurrents in these individuals that move beyond sibling rivalry to deep wounds. Molly, David and Jeremy as a family are a brick structure, solid and sturdy to withstand hurricanes. But we discover, the bricks are painted cardboard; the house is built for show and is rotting within. Neither Molly nor David are honest or forthright about their own personal issues; they withhold their true nature from Jeremy and each other. They are living a sham existence gilded over by superficial, meretricious accoutrements and values that do not feed their souls nor sustain their relationships with each other. Jeremy ends up being the casualty of this existence that never really was. The only individual who is real to him, his Uncle Billy, remains the most down-to-earth individual who has confronted his own demons and is in effect coming to grips with his self-destructive past in full view of Jeremy. This is real and and heartfelt, especially when Billy nurtures Jeremy and encourages him to remember that he is “a good kid.”
Billy’s presence serves as a catalyst; he is a provocateur who blows up the family pretense with a few, choice, truthful revelations. These revelations force the issue and expose the core of David’s and Molly’s lies and their living a life of quiet desperation with each other, a fact which Molly refuses to see. Billy’s authenticity and his acknowledgment that he is impaired, flawed, a “mess” is disarming and we find him to be likable. However, this is a two-edged sword because being charming also makes him cunning and manipulative as an operator without filters. When David initially tells him that he can’t stay because he and Molly are going through a “rough patch,” Billy relates this to Molly and Molly confronts David who assures her they are “fine.” But Billy’s keen observation of his brother at the outset of the play gleans the truth and his authenticity draws out the truth from others.
Threading undercurrents weave throughout, expertly wrought by Margulies so that by the end the raw nature of the characters crystallizes before us. Indeed, the title we assumed defined Billy. But it relates to Molly and David, who also have been “long lost.” The only authentic individual who has found the core of his own frail and weak being is Billy. And he is not ashamed to admit it. Ironically, Molly and David are just beginning their journeys of dealing with who and what they are and what they have pretended to be in a marriage that has been lifeless for a “long” time.
Margulies brings the characters into a few revelatory highpoints. The most significant one occurs between Billy and David. We learn of the sibling rivalry, the abuse, the parental neglect and the recriminations each brother feels. The scene is a powerful one and AuCoin and Tergesen bring to bear their extensive talents to draw us into a dynamic that many will empathize with. The tragedy is that as in many families, forgiveness is not an option. There is too much anger, fear, ego, and extreme hurt. There are not enough centuries to work through all of it, not that David would want to.
That Billy is dying is an answer for Billy, a strange redemption in which all of his life comes back on itself. By the conclusion he is fatalistic and grateful, even able to joke a bit about who he is and what he has done. However, David doesn’t have the same good fortune. He will have to deal with himself and his own inner resentments, pride, frailties and sadnesses especially after Billy is gone. Whether he has the strength or courage to do so, as Billy seems to have been able to do, remains to be seen. Perhaps it is easier after all to be a mess and to rather make a mess of one’s life and recognize it. That is a life lived with few expectations. On the other hand, David and Molly have so many ambitions and expectations, to not measure up to any of them is an agonizing and soul hardening devastation.
Margulies ends on an uncertain note, but brings a partial resolution during Jeremy’s visit with his uncle before he goes away to school. During their conversation, we see the impact of Billy’s visit on the family which externally appears to be disastrous, but in terms of clearing the air of lies and duplicity, in effect, was a blessing. However, Margulies expert characterization reveals that most probably David or Molly would not attest that Billy’s visit yielded a positive outcome. As often happens, he will be blamed for causing difficulty when, in effect, they should look to themselves to rectify their own inner mess.
Long Lost works on many levels. The actors’ spot-on portrayals reveal these poignant, flawed individuals whose lives are scattershot regardless of how “perfect” they may appear socially and economically. Parisse and AuCoin adroitly strip the gradual layers revealing that false perfection cannot sustain or nurture their characters’ relationship with each other. Tergesen uses the truthful comments to deliver Billy’s honesty bullet-like; his is the most empathetic character and the most chilling. The underpinnings are thrillingly made manifest through the excellently paced, shepherded production with Sullivan’s thoughtful, specific direction.
Kudos to John Lee Beatty for his gorgeous and appropriate revolving set design. Toni-Leslie James’ costumes are equal to the social/economic classes they embody. Kenneth Posner’s lighting design and Daniel Kluger’s original music and sound design round out the production with equal fervor.
Long Lost presented by Manhattan Theatre Club New York City Center Stage I runs with no intermission at New York City Center (131 W 55th St. between 6th and 7th) until 30th June. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.