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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review

"Neil Abrams' slim (in more ways than one) new novel 'Legacy' makes it more than clear that what he has on his on his mind, as his work and the world in which he writes becomes more and more antiquated and culturally irrelevant." — A putdown by a New York Times critic that has obsessed and devastated the novelist.

Justin Long, Jessica Hecht Eric Bogosian (Photo credit: T Charles Erickson)
Daniel Goldfarb's new play, Legacy, had me hoping that I'd never caused any writer the kind of crippling discomfort experienced by Neil Abrams. For sure, whatever the critical consensus about this new play is, no one is going to call it or its author irrelevant. In fact, the issues his characters tackle are very much relevant to the world we live in no matter what our occupation. Best of all, Legacy is an entertaining and thoughtful play that deserves a life beyond this brief world premiere on Williamstown Theater Festival's Nikos Stage.

Neil Abrams (Eric Bogosian, a writer finding himself traumatized by a devastating review certainly has had enough success to enable him to shrug off the paper of record's disdain. Besides a body of widely lauded novels, he's a popular tenured professor of a graduate writing program at Columbia University, a post which came with subsidized housing — specifically a big apartment on Manhattan's upper west side which, as Neil's student Heart (Halley Feiffer), puts it now only "lawyers or dentists or corrupt Wall Street bankers" can afford. He's also happily married to the much younger Suzanne (Jessica Hecht) who adores him.

But villification is easier to take when you're young. While Neil was able to come back from the backlash to an earlier novel his otherwise superstar standing amongst the literati has exacerbated the pain of that disdainful review. He's overwhelmed by fear that he's passed his prime and a failure rather than a hero to his students.

Instead of moving on to his next book, he finds himself reassessing his belief that his writing gave sufficient meaning to his existence and was as much — no, more — of an enduring legacy than having children. Suddenly parenthood beckons as an alternative kind of immortality. After all at 44 his wife is still young enough to have a child. And so, as he persuaded Suzanne, who did want children, to take satisfaction from their achievements (she's doing meaningful work with Stephen Spielberg's holocaust history project), he now persuades her to give parenthood a chance.

While motherhood IS possible for 40-something women, the ticking of the biological clock makes fertility past a certain age dependent on help from modern medicine. Consequently Neil's delayed urge to father a child is the foundation stone for Goldfarb's witty exploration of the impulse to achieve immortality, whether through the work we do or parenthood.

Initially this may all be headed towards being a too pat and facile. But the plot thickens in interesting ways. Suzanne and Neil discover that jumping onto the parenting bandwagon seventeen years into their marriage will make for a bumpy ride involving expensive and stressful fetility treatments and eventually a surrogate carrier. And no sooner than you think you know exactly where a surprise twist at the end of the first act is going, expect to be proved wrong.

The only surprise — and disappointment — is that director Oliver Butler hasn't elicited quite as passionate and charismatic a performance from Eric Bogosian as the other actors. Bogosian looks the part and is the same age as his character, but somehow his literary lion could use a little more of a roar. Perhaps it's because Bogosian is trying to downplay the fact that Neil is such a self-absorbed, and thus less than sympathetic character. At any rate, it's not disappointing enough to detract from the play's, and this production's, considerable pleasures.

There's no downplaying by Jessica Hecht. Her Suzanne captivates whether in a long monologue about her work, during her more intimate moments with Neil, or her increasingly warm relationship with Heart (Halley Feiffer), the young woman who becomes the "gestation carrier.surrogate carrier. Most poignant is her emerging from the thorny thicket this baby quest has taken her through full of joy and bracingly wide open to a distinctly "Now" family dynamic.

Not to spoil the text's twists and turns, suffice it to say that Heart (the quirky name given to her to commemorate the heart attack her father suffered when she was born) is most talented student. Because he's talked a lot about her, Suzanne has asked her to help pack up Neil's papers that the University wants for its archives. The women open up to each other during these decluttering sessions which leads to Suzanne's finding her a more acceptable surrogate than a stranger.

Feiffer who's an accomplished playwright (I'm Going to Pray For You So Hard ) as well as actor, gives a nuanced portrayal of the self-assured about her talent writer but also emotionally vulnerable young woman. (And, yes, she is famous cartoonist-playwright Julius Feiffer's daughter).

For all its poignancy, Legacy is also very funny. That brings uss to Justin Long's Dr. Goodman, the fertility doctor with a hilarious way of being "reassuring in a non-reassuring way." Long, who you may know for his part in the Apple commercials, is delightfully over the top. Though there's a scene involving a procedure that it's more harrowing than humorous.

Director Butler supported the script and actors with a Class A physical production. Set designer Dane Laffrey uses the playing area of the Nikos stage to disclose the living area and bedroom of Neil and Suzanne's apartment, and have it them seamlessly transition to Dr. Goodman's office and operating room respectively. Sound designer Dan Kluger's use of Haydn's "Surprise Symphony" and Rachmoninov's "Symphonic Dances" builds the between scenes pauses and prop changes to incidental music appropriately rises to a climactic crescendo.

All in all, a fine start to the WTF's summer 2015 season.

Legacy by Daniel Goldfarb
Directed by Oliver butler
Cast (in order of appearance): Eric Bogosian (Neil) Jessica Hecht (Suzanne), Hallie Feiffer(Heart), Justin Long (Dr. Goodman), Hazel Lozano (Nurse)
Scenic Designer: Dane Laffrey
Jessica Pabst: Costume Designer
Justin Townsend: Lighting Designer
Dan Kluger: Sound Designer
Stage Manager: Kyle Gates
Running Time: 2 hours plus one intermission
Williamstown Theatre Festival-Nikos Stage
July 1 - July 12
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at July 5 matinee performance
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