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Two Knockouts: New York Takes On Tinseltown

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 16, 2005; Page C01

NEW YORK -- The theater can be a genteel arena, but when it takes on Hollywood, the gloves come off. Serious drama's attitude toward Tinseltown is akin to that of an Ivy League professor about his brother the gigolo. The scholar is no doubt envious of the money his sibling rakes in. Still, he sneers, how can the guy live with himself?

As two excellent new productions are reminding audiences, the artistic competition between New York and Los Angeles can still be a delicious subject for the stage. The idea may be as old as moving pictures, but the blood is still gleefully spilled. In very different ways, the off-Broadway revival of "Hurlyburly," David Rabe's wallow in human Hollywood sewage, and the Broadway bow of "Brooklyn Boy," Donald Margulies's portrait of a novelist's tortured standoff with success, embodies New York's sense of cultural superiority.

Ethan Hawke and Parker Posey in the off-Broadway revival of David Rabe's 1984 "Hurlyburly." (Carol Rosegg -- Karpel Group Via AP)

Rabe and Margulies know exactly how to indulge us. Some of the juiciest aspects of "Hurlyburly" and "Brooklyn Boy" are moments of pure California satire, the sort positing that to people out there, works of art are as disposable as high-end Nikes or, for that matter, sex partners.

Both recently opened productions are extremely well acted. A superb Ethan Hawke in "Hurlyburly" at last stakes a bona fide claim to status as a stage actor after films such as "Before Sunrise" and "Training Day." Adam Arkin is the sturdy stand-in for Margulies in "Brooklyn Boy."

Each work is only tangentially about the movie business itself -- a couple of scenes in "Brooklyn Boy" are set in Hollywood, while all of "Hurlyburly" takes place in the seedy house of a couple of Hollywood Hills bottom-feeders who seem to have some vague connection to the world of casting. In both cases, however, the authors' cynicism about the ways of La La Land gives the plays their mood music, a kind of underscoring of amused disgust for the worship of looks and money.

Margulies, who won a Pulitzer Prize for "Dinner With Friends" -- his study of the midlife comforts and terrors of marriage -- turns in "Brooklyn Boy" to the intriguing question of atoning for one's achievements. In a series of encounters with a dying father (Allan Miller), a childhood friend (Arye Gross) and a soon-to-be-ex-wife (Polly Draper), Arkin's Eric Weiss is forced to confront the downsides of literary advancement: the resentments his success has fostered in others, and the toll that a career-long professional reserve has taken on him.

The acclaim accorded to his latest novel, the semi-autobiographical tale of Eric's own Brooklyn past, sends him on the inevitable pilgrimage to a film studio and a script meeting with a fatuous executive (Mimi Lieber). Her howler of an objection to Eric's screenplay based on the novel is that "Everybody's Jewish." "Darling, for your own good," she says, "lower the Jewish quotient."

The scene may remind you of a dozen other satirical depictions of movie mogul cluelessness, but Margulies is a subtler writer than most, and he gives the irony an extra twist. Eric is, in fact, in full retreat from his own Jewishness. (He's offended by the insistence his old friend Ira -- in a lovely performance by Gross -- brings to trying to get Eric to join him in a prayer for his father who lies gravely ill.)

The irony is tweaked one more time when the film executive invites to her office a studly Valley boy, persuasively played by Kevin Isola, to read for the lead. Eric is appalled at the actor's unsuitability. And then, when his reading proves stunningly sensitive, Eric is overcome. He bolts from the office in tears.

Daniel Sullivan stages "Brooklyn Boy" for the Manhattan Theatre Club with a fine ear for its plaintive rhythms. Scott Elliott does equally strong work with "Hurlyburly," presented at off-Broadway's Acorn Theatre by his company, the New Group. If "Brooklyn Boy" is a series of intense duets between Eric and various people in his life, "Hurlyburly" is more of an ensemble piece, its sleazy vibrancy dependent on the harmonizing of an entire cast.

Rabe's 1984 play takes place in a greasy den of iniquity inhabited by Eddie (Hawke) and Mickey (Josh Hamilton) and an assortment of losers, addicts, hookers, felons and dreamers -- an "Iceman Cometh" for the Sun Belt. Perched on the periphery of show business, the play chronicles all the parasitic behavior that typifies life on the fringe. The closest thing to a religious experience in the world of "Hurlyburly" is sealing some kind of deal, a catharsis that eludes Artie (Wallace Shawn), the buffoonish embodiment of Hollywood hope. Forever toting a designer briefcase, and sporting a toupee so feral you want to see it caged, Shawn's Artie is a clown without the rubber nose.

The women of the play -- who include Parker Posey as the paramour who ricochets from Mickey to Eddie, and Halley Wegryn Gross as a filthy street urchin whom Artie presents to Eddie and Mickey as a sexual plaything -- are treated as if they were merely the sums of their body parts. But then, isn't that a common complaint in Hollywood?

Hamilton is swell as the aloof counterpoint to Hawke's confused, coke-snorting Eddie, and Bobby Cannavale, playing the paranoid, misogynist, violence-prone Phil, an ex-con trying to break into the movies, brings a magnetic pull to the most repulsive of predators. The play, at more than three hours, could stand a good trim. But even at its most long-winded and drug-crazed, it traffics in truth.

Brooklyn Boy, by Donald Margulies. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Sets, Ralph Funicello; costumes, Jess Goldstein; lighting, Chris Parry; sound and music, Michael Roth. Approximately 2 hours 30 minutes. Through March 27 at Biltmore Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., New York. Call 212-239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.

Hurlyburly, by David Rabe. Directed by Scott Elliott. Set, Derek McLane; costumes, Jeff Mahshie; lighting, Jason Lyons; sound, Ken Travis. With Catherine Kellner. Approximately 3 hours 10 minutes. Through March 19 at Acorn Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St., New York. Call 212-279-4200 or visit www.ticketcentral.com.

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