There are two kinds of anti-heroes in literature: ones like Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye or Sir Philip Blakeney in The Scarlet Pimpernel who do all the things the rest of us wish we could do. And then there are the kind like Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello or Rhoda Penmark in The Bad Seed who are thoroughly rotten to the core and have no redeeming attributes.
The New York premiere of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies’ new play Long Lost is about the second kind of anti-hero. Unfortunately, where these sorts of stories usually evolve slowly as the truth dawns on us and retribution eventually punishes these evil characters, Long Lost reveals its hand from the beginning and has no developing arc. Older brother Billy, who turns up after ten years of silence, is as bad as he seems initially and continues to cause additional trouble in each succeeding scene. No surprises except to his family.
David (Kelly AuCoin), a successful financial consultant, returns from lunch to discover his long lost brother Billy (Lee Tergesen) waiting for him in his office. He assumes Billy wants money but Billy claims that is not it. As they reminisce about the not so good old days, we discover that Billy has spent time in jail and that he is responsible for a fire that killed both of their parents. Billy asks to stay with David and his wife Molly (Annie Parisse), who runs the Safe Harbor charity for women victims of domestic abuse, for a while as he has nowhere else to go, but David attempts to beg off saying it is not a good time. And then Billy pulls the guilt card and claims he is dying of cancer.
In each succeeding scene which takes place at David and Molly’s home, Billy causes more trouble including with David’s 19-year-old son Jeremy (Alex Woolf) home for Christmas from college. Even Molly, who is wise to Billy’s ways, unlike her husband who can still be manipulated after all these years, is caught up in his nefarious psychological games. It has been suggested that the play is about the limits of family responsibility but the answer to that is quite obvious here: when someone has no redeeming qualities and does nothing but cause damage to those around him there is only one choice to cut him loose.
The silken smooth direction of Daniel Sullivan who has previously staged Margulies’ Pulitzer Prize-winning Dinner with Friends, Sight Unseen, Time Stands Still, Brooklyn Boy, and The Country House is impressive but wrong for this play. What Long Lost needs is a rising tension which the script does not have. While John Lee Beatty’s sets are quite elegant, they distract from the plot. Toni-Leslie James’ attractively bland costumes also add little help to the play.
The play offers no catharsis as the actors are so low-key throughout, all much too calm even when the stakes are rising. As a result, there is little or no tension even when we realize the pattern that each scene will offer a worse revelation than the one before. Tergesen’s black sheep Billy gives us no clue as to the reason for his malignant behavior. Both AuCoin as his brother David and Parisse as David’s wife Molly are cool and sophisticated when they should be losing their temper. Wolff’s Brown University freshman is too inarticulate, but unfortunately he is straitjacketed by the dialogue he has been given.
Donald Margulies has written about dysfunctional families before. However, this time the play feels very unsatisfying as his anti-hero continues to manipulate his relatives without any consequences. After all these years, they should know how dangerous Billy is. We spend less than two hours with him and take his measure long before the final curtain. Is this a cautionary tale? Can the message simply be don’t let your relatives take advantage of you or you will live to regret it? Billy should have stayed lost to his family – or is that the author’s message?
Long Lost (through June 30, 2019)
Manhattan Theatre Club
New York City Center Stage 1, 131 W. 55th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-581-1212 or visit http://www.nycitycenter.org
Running time: 100 minutes without an intermission