Review: It’s Cain and Abel Redux in ‘Long Lost’ by Donald Margulies
Gasps that emerge from audiences at plays usually belong to one of two categories. There’s the authentic, uncontainable gasp of genuine astonishment or dismay, as involuntary as a yelp of pain.
Then there’s the more conscious version, the self-satisfied gasp of affirmation, which can be translated as “I knew it all along.” This was the sort of sound that my grandmother regularly made responding to the predetermined plot twists of her favorite soap opera, “As the World Turns.”
That is also the kind of gasp that is heard among the theatergoers at City Center Stage 1, where Donald Margulies’s “Long Lost” opened on Tuesday night in a Manhattan Theater Club production. This dispiritingly predictable portrait of incompatible brothers, reunited after many years of estrangement, is truly surprising only in its failure to surprise.
That’s because Mr. Margulies, whose “Dinner With Friends” won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for drama, often brings a refreshing jolt of the unexpected to portraits of familial dysfunction and midlife malaise. This has been true from his early “The Loman Family Picnic” — which featured musical fantasy sequences inspired by “Death a Salesman” — to later, more subtle studies of the disenchantment of success like “Sight Unseen” and “Time Stands Still.”
[Read a review of a revival “The Model Apartment.”]
His too-seldom-produced “The Model Apartment,” about an aging New York couple’s relocation to Florida, is one of the greatest — and most disturbing — “gotcha” plays of the past several decades. It is so subversively and ingeniously plotted, that I always hesitate to describe it in any detail to anyone who plans to see, or even read, it.
I feel no such reluctance regarding “Long Lost,” which is directed with Teflon smoothness by Daniel Sullivan, Mr. Margulies’s frequent collaborator. This 90-minute work is so conventionally and efficiently set up and structured, providing full and expected delivery on every teasing promise of things to come, that it might serve as a basic blueprint in a Theater 101 class.
That clear-cut approach is evident before a single living person sets foot on the stage. The show’s opening image asks (to borrow another Margulies title), “What’s wrong with this picture?”
We see an impeccably appointed office that whispers of big money. (John Lee Beatty did the high-gloss, revolving sets.) But wait a minute. What’s with those carelessly slung items on the floor and sofa — a shabby coat, a battered knapsack, an open bag of potato chips?
It would seem a force of disorder has invaded these sterile precincts, the domain of a fat-cat financial consultant named David (Kelly AuCoin, of “Billions”). This feeling is confirmed by the ominous shadow cast against the wall, as David changes his shirt.
The shadow belongs to a man who has the scruffy and wild-eyed look of Willie Nelson on a bender. He leaps into view to pounce upon the unsuspecting David. This is Billy (Lee Tergesen), who evidently still has the power to scare the bejesus out of his younger brother.
Though it’s been a decade since they last met, David is none too happy to see his unkempt visitor. Billy, it seems, is a reform-proof substance abuser and all-around wastrel who is responsible for a horrendous family tragedy that put him in prison.
Not that Billy ever intended to wreak this kind of havoc. He was just born bad. Or as he tells his successful brother, “Chemistry is destiny, man. You lucked out.”
Now Billy is dying of cancer, he says. And insisting that blood is thicker and all that, he wants to be put up in the fancy Manhattan apartment David shares with his sleek and fastidious wife, Molly (Annie Parisse), and his son, Jeremy (a very good Alex Wolff) — a freshman at Brown, home for the Christmas holidays.
Billy makes a lot of promises to David about behaving well, and then systematically violates them. (His betrayals of secrets provide the principal stimuli for the aforementioned gasps.) He also questions the limousine liberal attitudes of his rich relations and single-handedly transforms delicate fissures in David and Molly’s marriage into what may be irreparable cracks.
Mr. Margulies’s most fertile dramatic territory has always been the unsteady ground between love and loathing among family and friends, sown with the doubts and regrets that grow and fester with age. Here, though, he only seems to be skimming that terrain.
The thoroughly professional cast does as well as can be expected with roles that, on either side of the family divide, rarely engage our sympathy. Molly and David seem as shallow and surface-obsessed as Billy accuses them of being. And even at his most destructive, Mr. Tergesen’s Billy feels too worn-out to unsettle as he should.
It may be Mr. Margulies’s point that people simply don’t change, that chemistry is indeed fate, and we’re determined to keep repeating the old, self-destructive patterns. It’s a thought that harrows the 19-year-old Jeremy, who becomes increasingly frightened of his own future.
In the production’s most affecting performance, Mr. Wolff (of the film “Hereditary”) embodies Jeremy with a luminous sensitivity throughout. His distress in the play’s final scene, a dialogue with Billy, reminds you of the rich, finely shaded compassion of which Mr. Margulies is capable.
For the first time that night, I felt a crackle of the old Margulies magic, of that sense of gentle humor and sorrow regarding the ways we just can’t help messing up our lives. I didn’t gasp at that point, but I did sigh for the play that might have been.
Tickets Through June 30 at New York City Center, Manhattan; 212-581-1212, nycitycenter.org. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.