‘Lost Long’ Theater Review: Donald Margulies Writes a Play That Cries Uncle

The Pulitizer Prize-winning author of “Dinner With Friends” delivers an unwanted houseguest who should never be allowed on stage

There hasn’t been such an unwanted, colossally boring houseguest since Richard Dreyfus showed up on Marsha Mason’s doorstep in Neil Simon’s 1977 comedy, “The Goodbye Girl.”

Lee Tergesen (“Oz”) plays the noisy, messy bad brother Billy in Donald Margulies new dramedy “Long Lost,” which opened Tuesday at Off Broadway’s Manhattan Theatre Club. Billy is long lost, indeed. After years of being elsewhere, including a stint in jail, Billy arrives unexpectedly in Manhattan to mooch off his younger brother, David (Kelly Aucoin, “Billions”), and sister-in-law, Molly (Annie Parisse, “Friends From College”), whose teenage son Jeremy (Alex Wolff, “Hereditary”) hasn’t seen his uncle since they spent a day together at an amusement park 10 years ago and Billy won his little nephew a stuffed panda bear. That day was very memorable for Billy. Not so much for Jeremy, home after his first semester at college.

Margulies writes like Neil Simon too, only with far fewer jokes. The absolute flatness of Billy’s encounters with David in his office and then Jeremy in the family’s luxurious Park Avenue apartment is punctuated only by several bombshells, which go off like clockwork every 10 minutes. Rather than ramping up the drama, these revelations about illness, incarceration, infidelities and a double homicide expose the mechanics of the plot.

Margulies takes much longer than Simon to redeem his unwanted houseguest, who smokes dope, drinks a six-pack, plays the TV too loud, litters the living room carpet and spouts stark unpleasantries about his brother and sister-in-law. Billy has an unpleasant job, but then someone’s got to do it, because David and Molly have used money to anesthetize themselves from recognizing the truth about their empty lives.

Aucoin and Parisse render their respective characters with far more sympathy than they deserve. Wolff, on the other hand, can’t do much with a marijuana moment that recalls the most awkward scene in any Stephen Sondheim musical (from “Company”) or an equally clumsy episode that finds him jumping into bed between his parents like so many 19-year-old college students are prone to do.

Tergesen is so lovably obnoxious we know it’s only time (about 80 minutes, to be exact) before Jeremy cracks through Billy’s implacable fa├žade. Or is it the other way around? Margulies reminds us that we really are our uncle’s keeper.

Daniel Sullivan directs.