When a terrific playwright turns in an unsatisfying, even confounding new work, the only response may be to report that he or she is human, after all, and look forward to their inevitable return to excellence. I’m referring to Donald Margulies — author of the Pulitzer-winning Dinner With Friends (and Pulitzer-finalist for both Sight Unseen and Collected Stories). The unsatisfying and confounding work is Long Lost, produced Off-Broadway by Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center. Committed Margulies admirers like me, I predict, will scratch their heads over the play’s start-to-finish deficiencies.
Billy (Lee Tergesen) turns up in the swank office of his consultant brother, David (Kelly AuCoin). As Kenneth Posner’s lights go up, it’s clear from the instant that Billy opens his mouth — and maybe even before — that he’s an inveterate troublemaker. His very ambush of the unsuspecting David suggests that Billy is someone to keep an eye on and a healthy distance from.
Except keeping an eye on Billy palls for the simple reason that we, thanks to a play with insufficiently developed characters and plot, are already well ahead of the playwright. All but the dimmest observers can quickly see that Billy, who spent 18 months in prison for the fiery deaths of their parents, will wreak havoc no matter where he goes, no matter who he encounters.
So, where does Billy go? Who does he encounter? Well, there’s David’s wife, Molly (Annie Parisse), and their 19-year-old son, Jeremy (Alex Wolfe). Ingratiating himself into David and Molly’s swank Upper East Side apartment (designed by the ever-superlative John Lee Beatty), Billy tosses around the seeds of familial destruction, repeating confidences as fast as he’s asked not to, which leads to irreparable problems.
As if the audience thinks for even a minute that Billy would keep mum. Truly, the shocks that Margulies thinks he’s offering register more like mild nudges; this is playwriting so see-through that, in effect, it serves as a shock absorber. One foreseeable plot twist, at the press performance I attended, surprised few patrons. So much so that we of the unfazed had to wonder how the gaspers could have failed to have seen it coming.
For Billy achieves his devious ends like every narcissist: by wheedling his way around the human victims in his web. Although David and Molly do what they can to rid themselves of this incorrigible nuisance — while Jeremy, home from college for the Christmas holidays, comes and goes — they make no headway. Instead, a threat to their marriage arises out of at least one contrivance too many relating to infidelity.
Billy’s prison time is only part of a revealed history: Margulies also shows the lout smoking and drinking to his heart’s content in the classily decorated living room. Among his other manipulative forays, Billy announces that he’s terminally ill — or is the non-stop liar lying again? The disclosure earns him temporary leeway, as he (and we) know it will. Billy also has a string of women in his wake, one so recent that he seems to be talking to her as he drinks and doesn’t die.
Long Lost thus unfolds pretty much predictably for 90 intermissionless minutes, but the program notes that an intermission is included. I suspect a certain amount of slicing has been done in the hopes of making this troubled drama better through elision.
What remains un-elided is a final scene in which Jeremy visits Billy under circumstances that won’t be revealed here. An implication is floated that Billy isn’t such a bad guy after all — and maybe Jeremy and Molly aren’t the role models we thought they were. It all comes across as a final fillip unworthy of the usually-outstanding Margulies.
Daniel Sullivan, who has directed several of the playwright’s past work to great success, does the best he can — and Sullivan’s best is always quite good. Tergesen, not seen often enough on NYC stages, certainly gives Margulies and Sullivan what they must want in a contemporary urban villain, including generous stubble. Were Long Lost the melodrama it teases to be, he’d his twirling his mustachios.
AuCoin and Parisse, wearing the Park Avenue wardrobe picked out for them by costumer Toni-Leslie James, also grapple with their roles to some avail; Wolff, in clothes that any undergrad would be comfortable in, illustrates the behavior of a nephew who somehow finds their wayward uncle intriguing.
Not always, but often, Margulies writes of the upper-middle class with their upper-middle-class educations. Here, accordingly, Jeremy attends Brown; Molly graduated Princeton. (Did she meet David there? Who knows?) David and Molly also have impressive careers, with David making those big consulting bucks while Molly left a law career to run a charity benefiting abandoned mothers and children. There’s also a miss-it-if-you-blink reference to Goldman Sachs.
Margulies’ frequent raison d’etre is to zero in on the facts and foibles of this class. When he does, he’s generally one of the best at his craft. That the playwright isn’t working at a high level this time doesn’t mean that his abilities are long lost. Let’s rally around him and wait for what comes next.