Such caressing care masquerading as a razor-honed rapier is hardly unusual territory for Marber, whose play Closer (which opened on Broadway in 1999) examined the destructive and self-destructive tendencies of a quartet of London anti-romantics. But Howard Katz, at least as vividly directed by Tony winner Doug Hughes, finds an aching realism and spirituality in its characters that keeps them at such an uncomfortably close distance you can’t help but take notice - and take on more than a little of their pain.
As Howard, Molina never demands our empty pity, but instead transforms this troubled soul into a too-understandable speeding train on the short track for derailment. As Howard loses his high-profile job, his wife (Jessica Hecht), his father (Alvin Epstein), his son (Patrick Henney), and his money - in one form or another - he discovers the dangers inherent in his blind pursuit of success and is soon left with nothing except the Jewish faith he’s never hesitated turning his back on.
The idea is hardly a new one. Nor is the show’s deepest irony, that Howard’s appreciation for others who do their jobs well does not extend to himself, even as he spirals into a black hole of despondency, loss, and only faintly bitter regret. It’s when Marber grapples most openly with these ideas, perhaps more revelatory in London (where this play was first produced in 2001) than here, that Howard Katz feels least at home in its own skin, as a scathing morality play for a world and a man for whom morals have lost all discernible meaning.
Yet presented as a series of rapid-fire, slashing scenes, and loaded with lines alternately contemplative (“You sold your soul so long ago you don’t remember the price”) and comic (“It’s like Sodom and Gomorrah without the scenery”), everything meshes into a believable and even moving character study transcending its foundations’ familiarity. Hughes’s determination to never let you catch your breath and the brilliant, waking daymare lighting from Christopher Akerlind so drag you into Howard’s world that the play’s happenings always feel of-the-moment unique, even when they don’t necessarily sound that way.
The supporting actors are all critical components in establishing Howard’s disintegrating world, and if they’re asked to double (and triple and quadruple) up on characters just a bit too often for the complete sake of clarity, they’re all excellent. Hecht is a particular standout as Howard’s compassionate but brittle wife, finding in her all the love and disappointment Howard arouses in everyone. Epstein and Elizabeth Franz bring a vaguely old-fashioned quality to Howard’s genteel parents that perfectly clashes with their son’s relentless modernity. Even Euan Morton, in an oddly thankless assignment, unlocks a surprising amount of heart in a series of heartless young bad guys.
But it’s Molina, as galvanizing here as he was mechanical in his last New York appearance in Fiddler on the Roofwho becomes the life force that unites the play’s disparate elements into a cohesive, compelling whole. In charting Howard’s anger, tenderness, or resignation, Molina makes this foul-spirited avatar for the dregs of show business into a likeable anti-hero you want to succeed even as he rightfully pays the prices for his transgressions against both his fellow Londoners and himself.
When Howard insists, late in the play, just when he should believe it least, “Inside of me is magnificence,” you can’t help but agree. When he’s confronted by an old woman in a casino who tells him, “There’s evil in you,” that strangely seems no less correct. Marber’s story about the contradictions that threaten to rip us all apart from the inside out never drowns in the swells it creates, due in no small part to the work of Hughes and Molina, who maintain an unyielding grasp on the fluidity of human feeling. These three pros, themselves well deserving of respect, have imbued all levels of Howard Katz with exactly the sad, steady life it needs to hit all too close to home, time and time again.