by Carol Rocamora
“Am I my brother’s keeper?”
The battle of the brothers has been a universal story theme, ever since Cain and Abel. From Polyneices and Eteocles (Oedipus’s sons), to Edgar and Edmund (King Lear), and into the modern era, we never seem to tire of their struggles. Biff and Happy in Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Jamie and Edmund in O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Morris and Zachariah in Fugard’s The Blood Knot, Booth and Linc in Suzan-Lori Parks’s Topdog/Underdog – the conflict continues on the stage today.
So it’s no surprise that playwright Donald Margulies – chronicler of contemporary relationships – places two warring siblings center stage in Long Lost, his new play at the Manhattan Theatre Club. From the moment the lights go up, we’re on familiar terrain. Billy (Lee Tergesen), the older, wayward brother, has returned after years of absence to crash the posh New York apartment belonging to his younger brother David (Kelly Aucoin). It’s not a happy family reunion, as there are many skeletons in Billy’s closet – literally. An alcoholic and drug addict, Billy is responsible for the death of their parents nine years ago (perishing in a fire that Billy started while high on drugs).
Billy served prison time, and now he’s out – and homeless. It’s ironic, to say the least, since David’s wife Molly (Annie Parisse) chairs a charity benefiting the homeless and has just returned from a mega-fundraiser where she’s raised millions of dollars.
So the dramatic question of the play is, predictably: is David his brother’s keeper? It’s Christmas, son Jeremy (Alex Wolff) has just returned from Brown University, and David and Molly were hoping for an intimate family celebration. To make matters messier, Billy is intent on opening old wounds. He mocks his brother and sister-in-law for their excessive wealth and privilege, and provokes a bitter confrontation between David and Molly (by cruelly revealing that Billy and Molly had had a brief sexual encounter before she married his brother).
So “long-lost” Billy is the catalyst for multiple revelations (no spoiler) that catapult the household into turmoil and radically change the family dynamic. Yes, some of these revelations are implausible and melodramatic (to say the least). Nonetheless, Margulies keeps you on the edge of your seat – or rather, brother Billy does.
As Billy, Lee Tergesen could be a character right out of Sam Shepard’s world – charismatic, dangerous, unpredictable and ultimately sympathetic (thanks to Margulies’s sleight of hand). As the earnest David, wracked with family guilt, Kelly Aucoin plays the role with believable anguish. Similarly, Annie Parisse (as Molly) walks a delicate tightrope, trying to justify her infidelity to her shattered family. The most sympathetic character is young Jeremy, caught in the crossfire, played by a winsome Alex Wolff, who manages to forge a relationship with his Uncle Billy that is as touching as it is unexpected. There are no heroes or villains in this family play – only victims. Veteran director Daniel Sullivan directs with a sure hand on John Lee Beatty’s impressive turnstile set.
Watching Billy and David in their existential conflict, one is reminded of Lee and Austin, Sam Shepard’s dueling brothers, just down the street at the Roundabout a few months ago in the explosive True West. As in all the renditions of this timeless story, the conflict between two blood brothers is endless and unresolved, and the damage, meanwhile, is devastating.
Photos: Joan Marcus
Long Lost, by Donald Margulies, directed by Daniel Sullivan, at the Manhattan Theatre Club, New York City Center Stage 1, now through June 30