Watching the new drama written by Tony-nominated and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies, it’s hard not to ask how the author of such nuanced and entertaining plays as Time Stands Still, Dinner With Friends and Sight Unseen could have written such a mechanical, contrived exercise. The only possible explanation is that the writer had been given the assignment of creating an expert parody of a family drama. If that’s the case, he’s succeeded perfectly with Long Lost, currently receiving its New York City premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with the production as staged by Margulies’ frequent collaborator, Daniel Sullivan, who has directed dozens of Broadway shows and won a Tony for 2000’s Proof. The cast, composed of Kelly AuCoin, Annie Parisse, Lee Tergesen and Alex Wolff, is first-rate. And the sets designed by John Lee Beatty, like so many others seen at this theater, are exquisite enough to induce real estate envy.
No, the problem is with the play, an all too familiar tale of a prodigal son (well, in this case, brother) who returns home only to stir up all kinds of trouble. Said figure here is the scruffily dressed Billy (Tergesen, HBO’s Oz), who unexpectedly shows up at the well-appointed Wall Street office of his younger brother David (AuCoin, Showtime’s Billions) just before Christmas. David’s less-than-welcoming reaction to seeing his sibling after many years makes it instantly clear there’s bad blood between them.
It turns out that Billy, a drug addict, is currently clean, or at least he claims to be. But he has plenty of other problems, including a lack of money and homelessness. Also, he’s dying of cancer. Under the circumstances, David, a successful “consultant,” invites his brother to stay at his apartment for a few days.
That generosity doesn’t sit well with David’s wife Molly (Law & Order veteran Parisse, currently on Netflix’s Friends From College), a former corporate lawyer who now devotes herself to helping undocumented immigrants. The couple’s 19-year-old son Jeremy (Wolff, Hereditary) isn’t too thrilled when he arrives home for the holidays to discover his uncle, whom he hasn’t seen in many years, smoking pot in the living room. “Look at you, all grown up,” Billy observes. “That’s what happens when you don’t see someone for half his life,” Jeremy archly replies.
Billy soon makes himself at home, getting drunk on the couch and accidentally blaring the TV in the middle of the night. Despite his attempt to ingratiate himself to his hosts by bringing home coffee and donuts the next morning, his presence quickly proves divisive. Molly, who doesn’t believe Billy is really sick, makes it clear that his visit will be a short one.
Throughout the play, Margulies throws in a series of dramatic revelations, ranging from a tragedy involving the deaths of David and Billy’s parents to infidelities and lies both past and present. The shoehorned profusion of melodramatic plot twists feels more appropriate for a season-long daytime soap than a one-act play lasting a mere 90 minutes. It doesn’t help that most of them can be seen coming a mile off. Such plot machinations and familial themes are a hallmark of many of the playwright’s previous works, but they’re handled here with an uncharacteristic lack of finesse.
The relationship between Billy and his nephew, who’s skeptical of his uncle’s claim that he took him on a daylong trip to Great Adventure when he was a child, is the most interesting plot element. It also leads to the play’s most affecting scene, a coda set months after the main action in which Billy’s underlying vulnerability is made movingly clear. But neither the situations nor the characters are developed sufficiently to be fully involving.
Long Lost is never really boring, thanks to Margulies’ gift for pungently amusing dialogue, such as Billy’s advice to Jeremy about women: “Make ’em laugh, make ’em come, and they’ll love you forever,” he counsels his nephew. The performances are consistently fine. Tergesen provides just enough ambiguity to keep us guessing about his character’s true nature and Wolff is quietly touching as the teenager with conflicted feelings about his troubled uncle.
Sullivan keeps the proceedings moving at an admirably brisk pace, and the exquisitely detailed sets by Beatty are a marvel, appearing and disappearing as if by magic. It’s just a shame all this top-notch effort has been put into a play we feel like we’ve seen a thousand times before.
Venue: City Center Stage I, New York
Cast: Kelly AuCoin, Annie Parisse, Lee Tergesen, Alex Wolff
Playwright: Donald Margulies
Director: Daniel Sullivan
Set designer: John Lee Beatty
Costume designer: Toni-Leslie James
Lighting designer: Kenneth Posner
Music & sound designer: Daniel Kluger
Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club