Is it true that you are a Brooklyn boy?
Yes! I was born in Brooklyn Heights. I was born in Brooklyn hospital and lived in Brooklyn Heights until I was about five, then I lived for a while in St. Louis and central California. I moved back to New York when I was about 11, but by that point I was a Greenwich Village boy.
You've worked with Donald Margulies before in Sight Unseen, didn't you?
Yes, but I was not a part of the original cast. I took over the lead from Dennis Boutsikaris in the original production. Ironically, I had been a huge fan of the play just as an audience member. I was working on another piece for the Manhattan Theatre Club at the time. I was doing Richard Greenberg's The Extra Man, and Sight Unseen was also being done there. I went to go see it and flipped out for it. I then went back and took family members to go see it and was just talking about it nonstop--never thinking that it was going to be something I was going to get to do. And then a couple months later, The Extra Man's run was coming to a close and Sight Unseen was extending. Dennis wasn't going to continue on with it, and they offered me the chance to take over the role. It was just a wonderful opportunity to kind of enter a play that I had already been in love with.
Your brother, Matthew Arkin, made a splash in Donald's Dinner with Friends. Is it becoming an Arkin family tradition to perform in his plays?
Well, there is starting to be a real kind of extended family connection between my brothers and Donald and Dan [Sullivan] as well. I've worked with Dan a number of times, and he directed Dinner With Friends with Matthew. And then my brother Tony was in I'm Not Rappaport, which Dan directed, so, there's starting to be a lot of cross-pollination there.
What is it about his work that moves you the most--especially in Brooklyn Boy? There are a few things I love about him. It's hard to break it down, but I'm amazed at how incredibly funny his work is without being joke-oriented. You know, he doesn't write jokes, and yet the humor really comes out of a kind of deep situational reality that is just unusual. And I love also the fact that he doesn't declare whether the material is comedic or dramatic, and as a result of that, I think it gets a lot of mileage out of both ends of the spectrum. He has a tendency to get an audience's guard down with humor and as a result of that, when the material turns more emotional, it tends to be very effective. It's just a wonderful mix--a sort of lifelike mix of the two.
You are almost never offstage in this production. Is that difficult for you?
It's working out fine. I mean the thing that was very interesting about this play was how different the process of performing it for an audience was from the process of rehearsing it. The rehearsals were very wearing, and there was a kind of sadness and loneliness to because of that. Because of the episodic nature of the play, one scene partner would come in and work for a number of hours, and then they'd leave and the next person would come in, you know, refreshed and ready to go.
You were the only person that wasn't rested and raring to go!
Exactly. I would just have to kind of keep going. My rehearsal days were basically nonstop and the fresh-faced people would keep parading in front of me. And the nature of the play is such that my character doesn't have a lot of genuine companionship. The combination of those two elements made something exhausting about the rehearsals. What was satisfying was when we started doing it for an audience. The revelation there was that the audience is on his side. The audience sort of takes the journey with him. And that changed the dynamic a lot.
How did you approach playing Eric Weiss? What were the challenges to find a way to unlock him?
It took some time to understand. I was really curious to kind of unlock his culpability in the predicament that he's in and that was a little bit of a mystery at first. It felt in the beginning a little bit like they were these people that were just coming after him you know, and I really had to spend time questioning Donald and Dan and asking, "Where is his responsibility in this?" and "What has he contributed to his predicament?" Because I think in order for the evening to work, ultimately, he's got to change, and I wanted to find out what it was about him that needed change. And what started emerging was a kind of denial that he was guilty of trying to define himself through denying where he came from and what it was that contributed to him being the person he was. And that was the biggest challenge and became my most specific goal in trying to understand what made him tick.
With this play being so much about fathers and sons, and you having to constantly acknowledge your father's fame in some way, did you relate to this character on a personal level?
Yeah, I did. I related to the character in a number of ways. I related from the standpoint of understanding that my connection to my father is something that whether I choose to be conscious of it moment to moment in my daily life, it doesn't matter. It is going to be--for anyone that doesn't know me--one of the first things that is on the table in my dealing with them. And you know just as it doesn't matter whether Eric is thinking up this novel as being really about him or not, whether he thinks its important that he's Jewish or not, these are the things that in his relationships with other people are very much defining how they behave with him. And that doesn't mean he's got to go around with himself thinking like that all the time. But if he's living in denial about that, then he's just going to get slammed. What started emerging for me is the concept of those things that you're on the run from and the way they define you as much as any stated goal you may have. That if you really want to be free of something, you've got to acknowledge it consciously and integrate it into that part of yourself that can evolve. But if you're just on the run from it, it's going to keep rearing up and revisiting you over and over again.
Is there anything else that you think of as something you have to integrate? Being famous, perhaps?
Well, first of all, I don't think of myself as famous. I've spent time around people that are dealing with what I would call real fame--you know, sort of uncut, undiluted fame--and that's a whole other animal. What I have dealt with in varying degrees is a level of recognizability from being on television. That has had peaks and valleys for me. I guess, in a weird way, I grew up around my father's notoriety and was sort of used to the idea that it doesn't really mean anything about who you are. It's really a byproduct of something. But I'm thankful that with whatever objectivity I can muster, I don't feel like I bought into all of that too much.
I'd expect that the audiences at South Coast Rep in Costa Mesa, California were very different than New York audiences for this play. Was that the case?
The thing that was most surprising about that is that there hasn't been a huge difference in the response. You know, we were all kind of gearing ourselves up for the possibility of the audiences at South Coast to not being able to really relate to this play and that was not the case at all. What was really refreshing to hear was that there were different people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds who felt very strongly that there was universality to the play. Superficially, it dealt with specifically Brooklyn and being Jewish, but just below the surface there were themes that were universal.
Dana Reeve withdrew from the play after her husband, Christopher Reeve, passed away. How did the cast react to the difficult circumstances?
That was difficult, and it was a kind of continuation of what had been a very difficult way to wrap-up the run at South Coast because Chris went into cardiac arrest the night prior to our closing day. So we had finished the performance on a Saturday night there, and Dana got the news that this had happened. We spent the better part of that night as a cast--with Mimi Lieber kind of spearheading the effort to try and figure out a way to get her back to the East Coast that night. It was very sad. It was also--you know, not that I would ever wish this on any cast--but it ended up being in and of itself a very bonding experience because it was something that we all went through to a certain degree with her. There was a surreality to the whole way that that ended, and I think that everybody was very very relieved that we knew we were going to get to reconvene in New York. Of course, at that point, no one knew what Dana's plans were going to be. We were all in a sort of wait-and-see mode. I don't think anyone was surprised when she decided that she felt it would be best not to commit to the run here, but it was sad to see her go. On the flipside of that, we did get the wonderful Polly Draper, who has from the minute she arrived just integrated herself into the cast beautifully.
On a lighter note, I hear you have a newborn!
I do indeed. I'm sitting next to him right now. His name is Emmett, and he's having some lunch with his mom. He'll be eight weeks old tomorrow, and he's beautiful.
Are you a typical sleepless new father?
I cannot claim that I'm getting no sleep. My wife has been a saint about protecting my commitment to the show and making sure I get rest. I help out a bit during the days, and she really covers me at night.
With the obvious question of autobiography in Brooklyn Boy, you better watch out if Emmett grows up and writes a novel!
That's right! If he ever writes a book about a father named Aaron Arkin, I'll assume it's a total fiction.
Donald must be very sick of people asking him if this play is autobiographical.
It's amazing how much he skewers the whole concept of people doing that in this play. And even with that, after watching two and a half hours of him protesting anybody asking him those questions, that's the first thing people ask. It's just amazing.
What is the book that you carry around onstage? The one with the Brooklyn Boy cover?
It's Brooklyn Boy! Come on! Quite honestly, I don't know what it is. I've never wanted to think of it as anything other than what it's suppose to be. I know it's not, of course. I've glanced, and there is a text in there. It's an actual book, but I could not tell you what it is. In my mind it's only been one thing: Brooklyn Boy!