In every play—and, in fact, in most, if not all, art forms in general—there exists some degree of déjà vu. There are infinite stories, of course, and infinite ways to tell them, but some measure of commonality is unavoidable, which gives writers the opportunity to shake up that well-trodden ground and use routine patterns and tropes to subvert the audience’s expectations. On that account, Donald Margulies’s Long Lost, produced by the Manhattan Theatre Club and now playing at New York City Center – Stage I, fails.
The plot is familiar: a ne’er-do-well prodigal brother returns, throwing the lives of his seemingly perfect family into upheaval, and, in so doing, reveals that their lives weren’t as perfect as they initially seemed. Here the troublemaking sibling is Billy (Lee Tergesen), an addict who inadvertently caused the death of his parents and pops in on his well-to-do brother, David (Kelly Aucoin), claiming that he’s dying from cancer. Baring his brother’s resentment, Billy crashes at his home, influencing David’s nineteen-year-old son, Jeremy (Alex Wolff), and pressing on the nerves of David’s prim and polished wife, Molly (Annie Parisse).
From the onset, the production signals that Billy’s arrival will darken the scene. Tergesen ambles onto the set—a rotating one that reveals David’s office, awash in aggressively impersonal neutrals, or David’s co-op, as ferociously antiseptic and chic as rooms in a Bloomingdale’s catalog—and is immediately at odds with everything in view. But this scenic design, by John Lee Beatty, is best complemented by the work of the lighting designer, Kenneth Posner, who renders the early scenes in the soft light of dusk, casting shadows against the set pieces to create a foreboding atmosphere and visual metaphor for the secrets that lurk beneath the surface. The music, designed and composed by Daniel Kluger, also hints at what’s to come, though not in a good way: brief jazzy interludes in the transitions recall the kind of campy black-and-white dramas that you might flip past late at night.
So shadows—and secrets, and drama—are promised, and, sure, Margulies delivers, but they arrive mundanely, predictably, like the USPS. The whole of David’s and Molly’s characters—their personalities, their histories—feel limited to their reactions to Billy, and so feel like meager sketches rather than full portraits. In watching Long Lost, however, one still stumbles upon the spaces where Margulies hints at, though ultimately passes by, themes ripe for nuance and depth: the gender dynamic and class discrepancy between David and Molly, the class tension between the couple and Billy (whose comments on their status as the capitalist elite and their hypocrisy in regard to the less fortunate are almost totally undercut by his own misconduct and manipulations), and the very real relationship between mental illness and addiction and homelessness. Jeremy, set between his parents’ upper-class prestige and his uncle’s disarray, exists simply as a beacon of moderation, not as buttoned up as David and Molly but also not as unleashed as Billy—and more earnest and empathetic, despite his preciousness, than those on either side.
But the problem is also the cold air in the production. The direction, by Daniel Sullivan, lacks urgency and a firm atmosphere of confrontation to work the play’s turns. When Tergesen and Aucoin meet in the first scene, the chilliness isn’t one of brothers with a knotty backstory but one between actors speaking at each other on a stage. Tergesen’s sloppiness, as Billy, is affected and contained, and Aucoin’s gestures toward Kelly’s discomfort—and, later, his rage—are present but not palpable. There’s no sense of tension between the two, so the play’s stakes never seem to reach any heights. By the last scene, however, Tergesen summons more from his character, a mix of his earlier roguishness and newfound vulnerability—but the progression feels unnatural and unearned from the rest of the production. Wolff, who has a similarly flat performance at first, marked by projection and not enough inflection, also settles in later on. Parisse, meanwhile, works well in the chill of the stage, gifting Molly with an extra dose of distance and, when it comes to Billy, venom.
Though no single element of it is cause for ire or serious disdain, Long Lost neglects to transcend the formulas it sticks to, making it, at best, an unremarkable trip to the theatre.