IN A NEW BROADWAY PLAY, ADAM ARKIN PLAYS A SUCCESSFUL NOVELIST STRUGGLING TO COME TO TERMS WITH HIS DYING DAD

The play treads familiar, even cliched ground, mixing satire, sadness and situational comedy with surprising earnestness (striking a false note when it reaches for a tidy conclusion in the final scene). And playing Eric has provided Arkin with what he calls an unexpectedly rich experience: Arkin was, like his character, born in Brooklyn to a father, actor Alan Arkin, who loomed large. Now a successful television star in his own right (he played the homeless gourmet on "Northern Exposure," a fickle doctor on "Chicago Hope" and has recently been seen on "8 Simple Rules"), Arkin has returned to the city he still feels is home. He recently spoke with NEWSWEEK's Brian Braiker about fatherhood, his new Broadway gig and the affinity he has for the titular character. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: The first series you did was 1977's "Bustin' Loose," and you actually played a man trying to escape his overprotective parents in New York. Do you feel like you've come full circle?

Adam Arkin: [Laughs.] I had never thought of it in those terms, but, yeah, the Jewish boy trying to escape the domineering parents seems to be an easy thing to succumb to.

Your own father must have loomed large while you were growing up.

Very large, yeah. Regarding this play, it's never anything I consciously am accessing during the performance, but I wonder if, given that there's such a strong father presence in the character and in the play, if my having a father that is known and recognizable to people is somehow subliminally affecting people's view of the play.

But the father in the play is not a success in the way yours had been.

No, he looms large psychologically but his own life has actually been kind of small and lived in a sort of retreat, having in the father's words lost the competition with his son. It's a slightly different model in that respect.

Are you a father yourself?

I am. I have an 18-year-old daughter from my first marriage and I'm newly a father again to a son who's going to be eight weeks old. It's been an interesting time re-entering fatherhood--to a son for the first time--returning to New York, returning to the stage and working on this material. It's been a very rich, layered experience.

Is it difficult to go back to Broadway after television?

No. If there's one thing that really has kind of affirmed itself over and over again is how much this feels like home. There's something very natural feeling about being in New York and being on stage here. And there's something about the way I've always been treated in New York that just reminds me that this is home. I feel a sense always when I'm here of being claimed by New Yorkers as one of their own and that's always a wonderful feeling. I was born in Brooklyn and actually grew up the first five years of my life in Brooklyn Heights.

Has your dad seen the play yet?

He saw it in Costa Mesa [Calif.] when we did it in Orange County [for its pre-Broadway run].

It's a very New York play--the humor, the references. Do you feel like any of that was lost on your Costa Mesa audiences?

It's a good question, and it's something that we were definitely concerned about in rehearsals. There were audience discussions when we were in California. In one case there was a Chicano gentleman who said [that if Margulies were to] change some of the superficial elements--the religion itself and the locale--that it was completely his family and the story of him and his father in a Catholic, Chicano environment with him trying to go out into the world and making something of himself and his father staying connected to what was safe and cloistered in terms of their own cultural environment. He really responded to it. Eighty percent of the time I'd say we finished to a standing ovation in Orange County, which was lovely.

New York audiences are probably a little harder.

I don't know that they're harder, but I think the seats at the Biltmore may be a little more comfortable.

Was it fun to come back here, especially with the scene in the producer's office, and poke fun at Hollywood a little bit?

Yeah, it is. [Laughs.] I wish that scene was more satirical than it is, but it actually is so dead-on in terms of a certain mentality that it is possible to encounter out there.

For a play that's dealing with loss and sadness, it's really funny.

I love Donald's ability to do that. I think he's a master at using humor, which in and of itself in his plays is not joke-oriented. I love that his humor comes out of the relationships and the situations in an honest way, yet he's so good at using humor to soften up an audience and bring their defenses down, so that when the play takes that turn and becomes emotional, it's really interesting to chart its effect on an audience.

On "8 Simple Rules," Pamela Anderson recently played your girlfriend. You're really showing your range these days.

[Laughs.] Yes. In more ways than one.