Donald Margulies’s new play, Long Lost, almost revels in overly familiar plot elements. Focusing on two brothers who haven’t seen each other in years, Margulies draws on the good brother/bad brother dynamic of the Cain and Abel story; it pops up in Hollywood films as different as Arsenic and Old Lace and Legends of the Fall, but perhaps most pertinently in Duel in the Sun, where the brothers form two points of a love triangle. Here the siblings are David (Kelly AuCoin), a successful consultant, and his older brother, Billy (a gray-bearded Lee Tergesen). In Margulies’s story. David’s wife Molly (Annie Parisse) glancingly forms the third point. But another oft-mined trope is also at play: the stranger who arrives in a settled household and disrupts it is a staple of drama from The Playboy of the Western World to Picnic.
Under Daniel Sullivan’s direction, however, the hoary elements of Long Lost somehow cohere, though not without bumps. When Billy shows up in David’s office—having been improbably allowed in by David’s receptionist—the tension bubbles up right away. AuCoin is ill-at-ease, trying to placate Billy and tipping off the audience that Billy has, somewhere in their past, been bad.
Indeed he has, and Tergesen, in a beautifully detailed performance, full of awkwardness, edge, longing and risk, leaves no doubt of it. He wheedles, plays on David’s weaknesses, and presents himself as a changed man—crucially, since, during an addiction to alcohol and drugs, he caused the death of their parents.
“You were my big brother,” says David, rehashing the past. “I was born loving you. You were my world.” But, he adds, “I never knew which Billy I was going to get: the fun Billy or the psychopath. You fucking terrorized me.” If Tergesen’s mellow demeanor seems to belie the description, there’s Mephistophelian subtlety in his response. “So much anger,” he replies, adopting a holier-than-thou attitude to play on David’s guilt.
Margulies makes clear from the outset why Billy has returned: he is dying of cancer. He wants love and family nearby. But even that diagnosis doesn’t seem a good enough reason for the level-headed David to give shelter to Billy in his home. They’ve had no relationship.
Billy: All the time I was in prison, did you ever come to see me? Even once?
David: Why would I see you? I was done with you.
Billy: I wrote you letters, you never wrote back.
David: I had nothing to say to you! You killed our parents!
”You can’t go home again,” Thomas Wolfe said, and Margulies’s play is indeed about the inability to escape the past, or to redeem it. “Chemistry is destiny,” Billy tells David, explaining his addiction. Billy botches his attempt to reconnect—but he finds some sympathy from his nephew.
Jemmy (Alex Wolff) doesn’t remember the childhood adventures Billy tells him they had—notably a trip to Great Adventure—but ultimately he learns that Billy was once a caring and decent person, and his relationship with his uncle, tenuous and short-lived, begins with that knowledge. (At the same time, the idea that a 9-year-old wouldn’t carry any memories of his uncle rings false.)
John Lee Beatty’s set speaks volumes about the emotional desolation of David’s family. Designed in neutral and subdued tones, the apartment is sterile. A huge Christmas wreath with white lights hangs over the mantelpiece, but there’s no merriment anywhere, apart from Molly’s red party dress—she finds fulfillment in a charity she runs. In some ways Billy has had a life, and they merely have an existence.
The quartet of actors surely seem bent on showing they’re the best in New York, and that helps paper over plot holes. Annie Parisse is flat-out great as the businesslike Molly, reserved and stern but outwardly polite. Wolff is a likable teenager, at first resisting his uncle’s bait to join him in smoking pot, and then giving in.
AuCoin does what he can with the difficult role of David, and draws sympathy for him, both in his hapless relationship with Billy and even in a marital plot twist. But Tergesen is extraordinary. In a final good deed, he assures Jemmy that his mistakes—flopping out of school and cheating on his girlfriend—aren’t inherited.
“I was already a lost cause way before I was your age. You are anything but,” Billy tells him. “I never thought about good or bad. I just did whatever lame-ass thing I wanted to do. Didn’t care about consequences, didn’t care about nothing.” Margulies’s cautionary tale may feel a little stale around the edges, but it’s made a bit fresher by an excellent production.
Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of Long Lost runs through June 30. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday and at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. For tickets, call CityTix at (212) 581-1212 or visit longlosttheplay.com.