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Theatre in Review: Long Lost (Manhattan Theatre Club/City Center Stage I)

Kelly AuCoin, Alex Wolff, Annie Parisse. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Donald Margulies has a knack for writing small plays that resonate far beyond their boundaries; this is especially true of Long Lost, a black-sheep drama that, at first glance, looks like yet another tour through a familiar landscape of domestic dysfunctions. Yet, under Daniel Sullivan's taut direction, the questions it poses look increasingly knotty; before long, one starts to appreciate how the playwright has wrought a domestic miniature that has much to say about the way we loathe now.

At the center of Long Lost is a pair of brothers locked in a bond that makes Cain and Abel look like a model of mutual amity. David, who has done very well for himself -- "I consult," he says, mysteriously, when pressed about the source of his wealth -- is dismayed to find, sitting in his high-floor Manhattan office, Billy, the sibling he can never quite shake off. Billy, a king-of-the-road type -- he seemingly owns little more than the contents of a backpack -- was last seen moving from New Orleans to Nashville in the company of his girlfriend, now his ex. "Let's just say....certain issues...arose," he says, with uncharacteristic terseness. These in all probability had to do with his ferocious appetite for booze and drugs. David, who has no interest in another round of drama, wants to know why Billy has turned up at this precise moment. "I'm dyin', man," he replies.

Add in that Molly, David's wife, can't stand the sight of Billy; that David alludes to undefined marital problems; that Jeremy, David and Molly's son, is due home from college for Christmas; and that Billy is something of an unregenerate liar, and you have the makings of a perfect cocktail of poisoned holiday cheer.

There's plenty of slow-burning tension in the early scenes, when Billy tries to get invited to a glitzy charity gala produced by Molly, who runs a not-for-profit dedicated to helping battered women, and when Billy, ensconced in the family living room, knocks back multiple brewskis while inviting Jeremy to join him in smoking a little weed. Billy also tries to get Jeremy to reminisce about gifts that he may or may not have received from his uncle and a trip to Great Adventure that may or may not have happened -- a scene that is an almost Pinterian excursion into the frailties of memory. Such encounters pale beside the revelation of Billy's role in the deaths of his and David's parents, about which he remains essentially unrepentant -- "I was fucked up," is his excuse; "Yeah, yeah, I know. The 'disease' defense," is David's response -- has resulted in his banishment from family life.

There are more shockers where that came from, as Long Lost becomes a portrait of a family divided by class, with little in common but gnawing dissatisfaction. Billy and David grew up on a farm in Indiana, with Billy routinely torturing his brother. ("It wasn't just 'brother stuff' when you kept me in a headlock till I almost passed out," says David. "I was fooling around," replies Billy. "Or punched me in my face when I was sleeping?" counters David. "I did that maybe once," says Billy, evasively.) David fought his way out, leaving Billy behind to stew in his fecklessness and addiction. But Billy's many provocations have a way of laying bare the emptiness at the heart of David and Molly's marriage, especially when a long-buried secret comes to light. William Faulkner's famous comment -- "The past is never dead. It's not even past" -- has rarely seemed more apt.

At the same time, Long Lost works as a commentary on the social and economic abyss that has opened up in America in recent years. Billy -- "a chaos machine," in David's memorable summation -- hails from an agrarian heartland that (justifiably) feels left behind, resulting in unchecked fury and a taste for mischief-making. ("The is the fucking Emerald City, man," he says. "The rest of the world is living in black and white!") David is now a card-carrying member of the East Coast elite, but he takes no pleasure in his work or family life, nor can he let go of Billy or the memory of his parents; at the same time, Billy needs David, if only for the next handout, yet he can't resist biting back. Neither of them -- nor, as it happens, Molly -- is capable of exorcising a family history that continues to hold them in its deathly grip.

Sullivan's cast of four is highly skilled at these tribal war games. Kelly AuCoin is a study in suppressed pain as David -- he seems always on the edge of a grimace -- but he isn't the weakling he at first appears; indeed, he is a skilled counterpuncher, especially when coolly lying by way of defanging one of Billy's most hurtful maneuvers. Lee Tergesen's Billy is the kind of ticking bomb who naturally leaves everyone guessing when he will next explode. Annie Parisse exudes an icy authority as Molly, whether dismissing Jeremy as "a quasi-adult," or quietly, lethally informing Billy, "You are the malignancy;" yet, suddenly kicked off the moral high ground, she finds an authentic vulnerability. Alex Wolff is effective as Jeremy, who has grown up in a cocoon that is about to be ripped apart.

Providing fine support for the playwright's vision is John Lee Beatty's scenery, which, using three turntables, reveals David and Molly's way of life in all its luxury and sterility; Kenneth Posner's lighting design fills out the picture with some fine time-of-day looks, especially some lovely bursts of sunshine. Toni-Leslie James' costumes draw class lines as effectively as anything in the script. Daniel Kluger's sound design supports his original music, including some appealing jazz saxophone-and-piano combinations.

In one of their more fraught moments, a fed-up David says, "Just because we came from the same womb, I'm supposed to be responsible for you forever and ever, no matter what kind of shit you do?" "We're family," replies Billy. "I'm not your keeper, bro," insists David. Maybe not, but escaping him is another thing altogether. It's an indication of Long Lost's power that neither brother's viewpoint is really sustainable. This family tie has a stranglehold, and disentangling it is beyond the skill of anyone in Margulies' acutely written drama. --David Barbour

(18 June 2019)

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