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.
Playwright Richard Bean stormed Broadway with One Man, Two Guvnors, which familiarized American audiences with James Corden. Writing again for Broadway with The Nap, directed by Daniel Sullivan in its American premiere, Bean chooses a more sportsmanlike subject (snooker). A derivative of pyramid pool and life pool, with different rules, table, and balls, snooker classifies as a cue sport. It originated among British Army officers stationed in India in the latter half of the 19th century.
Bean’s incredible wit populates this play, with an ironic double entendre related to the game name thrown in for good measure. And his symbolism, related to what “the nap” suggests, cleverly stresses the theme of going with the flow of fateful events. The playwright also configures the plot twists with facile, wild characterizations. Daniel Sullivan keeps the action vibrant. As he shepherds his cast, the mix solidifies with humor. Together the ensemble presents an altogether enjoyable evening.
The play references the culture of those who enjoy snooker as aficionados and professionals. Dylan Spokes (Ben Schnetzer) hails from a lower-class background but uses his champion-level snooker skills to better himself and rise up the class ladder. This is no small feat considering his parentage: a former felonious, drug-dealing, alcoholic father and a gambling-addicted live-wire mother. Dylan’s ambitions lead him to become a ranked professional snooker player. And he intends to be number one in the world. With Dad, Bobby Spokes (the humorous John Ellison Conlee), who “coaches” him and mom, Stella Stokes (Johanna Day’s portrayal is too brief), who quietly “nurtures” him, how can he fail to be great? This introduces the primary conflict, as he competes in a major championship match.
We learn about the game and protagonists Dylan and Bobby during their humorous by-play at their hometown Sheffield club. As Dylan readies the club’s snooker table with near-obsessive attention to detail, we witness his integrity regarding the game. Considering his background and the opportunities snooker provides for gambling, this irony falls heavily. Bobby even references his son’s morality countering his own history of waywardness. But snooker assures that Dylan will never return him to the grime and squalor of street crime. Consequently, he reveres the game like a religion.
That’s a key problem! But it makes for wonderful comedy. For this character trait becomes the linchpin of the action. All who know Dylan – the highbrows and criminals from his parents’ circle – can count on his assiduous, martinet-like behavior, as he never ever “violates the rules.” Indeed, his moral compass makes everyone blush – everyone except the amoralists, who exploit this sanctity.
Complications arise with Dylan’s upcoming tournament against Abdul Fattah during this snooker practice session. Bean sets the characters against each other. First, coppers Mohammad Butt (Bhavesh Patel) and Eleanor Lavery (Heather Lind) drop by to take Dylan’s urine sample, revealing that they serve the WPBSA (World Snooker Association).
Next, they warn Dylan that mischief comes in the form of match fixing and his flamboyant sponsor Waxy Bush, a confederate of his mom’s, who gambles odds against ranked players. The coppers suggest Dylan go undercover for them to set a trap. Along the way Dylan’s manager Tony (the humorous Max Gordon Moore), appears and schmoozes his way around the room, handing out his business cards like candy. As with all his characterizations Bean has given Tony delicious lines, which Gordon Moore takes full and clever advantage of to the audience’s delight.
A love interest develops between Eleanor and Dylan. Not only has snooker paved the way for Dylan’s exciting adventure in assisting the police and World Snooker, his love life blossoms. Can anything be better?
Subsequently, we meet the criminal-turned-innocent, Ms. Waxy Bush herself (the wonderfully spot-on and hysterical Alexandra Billings) and her accomplices (Stella and boyfriend). The plot thickens and confusion reigns. We think we follow the action. But the snookers are being “snookered.” During the chaos, divorced Bobby and Stella exploit Dylan for different reasons, badgering each other in the process. Humorously, Bobby warns Dylan not to give his mother any money. Stella identifies her former husband as a drunk to uplift her current “boyfriend” Danny (the versatile Thomas Jay Ryan), whose stinky smell puts others off. And Eleanor and Dylan continue their affair as he plays his match against the formidable Fattah (bona fide snooker play Ahmed Aly Elsayed). Thrillingly, the match is played live; the screen above the players shows all. Bean wrote in an interactive ending that changes unpredictably.
No spoiler follows. Seeing this hysterical production you will find a rainbow of amazement and an intriguing conclusion. Most probably, you will learn the difference between pool and snooker. And your laughter will ring out uproariously as mine did at Waxy Bush and at Bean’s turns of phrase and clever wit characterizing Bobby, Waxy and Tony. You probably will be shocked and startled. You will appreciate the crooked film references and how apt they are to the circumstances. More than that I dare not reveal, for it would spoil the fun.
When I saw the production, a startling technical difficulty delayed the action toward the end of
Act I. Ironically, this mishap right out of The Play Gone Wrong provided me with unending chortles the next day when I learned that the misbehaving large prop hadn’t injured anyone.
On the other hand, that evening, some of the cast’s accents rankled. Actors who took their time to project clearly got the laughs. But some hysterical lines became swallowed up or dropped in the mangling of accents. I wondered, in the mouths of a different cast might things have been different?
For example, in the film Snatch, with Brad Pitt’s back-country UK caravan accent, as rapidly as Pitt’s character spoke his convolutions, I got it. Sadly, this did not hold true with some of the actors in The Nap. My frustration with this is that to lose any of Bean’s humor, and the audience surely did, seems a shame. The humor begins at the top and continues throughout. Indeed, Bean’s writing seeks a glorious level and his characterizations and the ironies that abound with them should strike continual heat-filled laughter from the outset. This play is every bit as LOL-excellent as One Man Two Guvnors. And yet.
Kudos go to the design team of Kaye Voyce (costumes), Justin Townsend (lighting), and David Rockwell (scenic design).
The Manhattan Theatre Club’s The Nap is at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (261 West 47th). The Nap closes on 11 November.