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Above left: Brandon Burke and Matilda Ridgeway.

Above right: Brandon Burke and Daniel Mitchell.

Above: Lenore Smith and Leigh Scully.

Below: Michael Ross.

POSTED: 06 FEBRUARY 2010

Brooklyn Boy, by Donald Margulies

Ensemble Theatre | Kirribilli, Sydney | Until 6 March

I wonder just how many words have been devoted over the years to books, plays, television shows and movies about the struggle of young Jewish people in reconciling their upbringing. The stereotypical New York Jewish family dynamic has become ubiquitous in popular culture.

Having said that, the battle to establish one’s identity as an individual is not limited to those who reside in Brooklyn and celebrate Hannukah. Similarly, other themes that arise in Donald Margulies’ Brooklyn Boy are as universal as breathing: old friends that have moved on or stayed stuck; the recognition that one’s parents weren’t perfect or even always lovable; the relationship that, despite your best efforts, is doomed.

Eric Weiss (Brandon Burke) is an author who has finally cracked the bestseller list (albeit at number 11, as his easily unimpressed father points out). The book that has done it for him, Brooklyn Boy, is a thinly disguised semi-autobiography, full of composite family members and friends from his own upbringing.

Eric, however, has made a concerted effort to distance himself from his Jewish roots. But events are conspiring to make Eric face up to his past and come to terms with who he really is — as we all are, the sum of many parts.

Several two-handed scenes expand the story of a brief, pivotal period in Eric’s life: the imminent death of his father; his struggle with his Jewish identity; the disintegration of his marriage; and the most commercially successful period of his career.

What is an amusing, well-written but essentially unsurprising story is elevated by superb performances, most notably Burke. He is so very natural as Eric; it’s easy to forget one is watching a scripted performance, and his facial expressions speak a thousand extra words a minute.

Conversations flow with ease, especially those between Eric and his childhood friend Ira (Daniel Mitchell, in brilliant form).

As Eric’s father Manny, Michael Ross convincingly sets up a lifetime of father–son interaction: conflict, repressed emotion and mutual disappointment.

Matilda Ridgeway’s author-groupie Alison is beautifully characterised — bubbly, confident in the way only the young can be, yet vulnerable.

Lenore Smith doubles as Eric’s wife, Nina, and the brash movie producer Melanie. Her comic timing and expressions as Melanie were some lovely light relief for the slightly-too-long second Act, ably assisted by Leigh Scully’s enthusiastic young actor Tyler. But it was as Nina that Smith really shone. A writer herself, her battle to keep her self-worth afloat is truly moving.

Anna Crawford’s direction is sharp and subtle (with the exception of Melanie and Tyler’s scene, which is fittingly over-the-top). Brought to life by her splendid cast, Brooklyn Boy is a funny, gentle and touching exploration of acceptance.

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