Black coffee, no sugar, no milk. That's Howard Katz. It's a play of hot caffeine, with nothing to sweeten or soften its scalding depiction of a man who has lost his way in life and is falling, falling, falling. If Patrick Marber's ninety-minute piece wasn't so funny in its early scenes, one might liken it to Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. After all, in its simplest form, it's about a father who works hard for his family, loses his job and goes to pieces. Except our protagonist, Howard Katz, is already on his way to hell even as the play begins - but attention must be paid because Howard, as portrayed by Alfred Molina, has the dynamic dimensions of a tragic character.
The play begins with Katz on a bench in a park in the early morning. He has clearly slept there overnight. Accosted by a rather charming young street hustler (Euan Morton), it becomes clear that Katz is contemplating suicide. The rest of the play is a flashback that tells us how he ultimately came to be on that bench and in that dark and dangerous frame of mind.
What we learn, in brief, is that Katz is not a very nice man. He is, in fact, loud, crude, and mean. His appeal (to the audience, not to his fellow characters) is his brutal honesty. Cross him, and he'll tell you truth – and it is coldly comic. Katz is a talent agent and when a client quits him he belittles the poor soul with such a sudden, searing bitterness that we laugh at the audacious honesty of his emotions. But the laughter soon begins to sour as Katz continues to self-destruct. He drives away his wife and son, loses his job, his savings, and his self-respect. But then he never actually had any self-respect and that has been his problem. The death of his father further accelerates Katz's descent and the only question that remains is whether there is a safety net that will catch him before it's too late.
Molina gives a towering performance as Katz; he can, in one moment, supplicate God with his sad eyes and then erupt with volcanic fury. Molina is surrounded by a talented cast that includes, among others, Jessica Hecht, Alvin Epstein and Euan Morton, all of whom play a variety roles and create a gallery of essential characters. Director Doug Hughes keeps the action – and the emotions – taut in a play that was originally two-and-a-half hours long in England.
At times as harrowing as it is darkly comic, Howard Katz is not going to be a play for every taste. It is, however, exceptionally well-acted and dramatically intense. If you like your plays dark and unsweetened, come fill your cup ...
Howard Katz for Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theatre through May 6.
3 Stars: The Coast of Utopia: Part 3 – Salvage
[4 Stars: The Coast of Utopia: Parts 1, 2 & 3 (together)
The culmination of The Coast of Utopia sadly does not match the expectations raised by the first two parts of Tom Stoppard's ambitious work at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre. In almost every respect, except in its performances, Part 3: Salvage is a let down. Stoppard, arguably the most erudite playwright in captivity, can captivate you with the sheer wizardry of his highflying intelligence, but the play finally lacks the dramatic wallop that one might rightly expect after investing approximately eight hours taking in big gulps of 19th century Russian history.
Let it be said at the outset, though, that even though Part 3 misfires, The Coast of Utopia in its fullness is still a rather remarkable piece of theater. Part 3 aside, you may never again see more breathtaking stagecraft. The set and lighting designs of the first two parts are beyond stunning. The same is true for Jack O'Brien's direction of those segments. It's almost as though the creative team was simply exhausted by the time they got to Part 3; the set and lighting designs – as well as the direction – seem relatively uninspired by comparison.
Oh, but the acting in Part 3 is every bit as thrilling as the performances in the rest of the piece. Brian O'Byrne is that rare actor who can remain grounded in humanity while making bald-faced speeches when almost any other actor would be smothered in pomposity. When he gets to play scenes rather than talk politics, he is astonishing. There is one scene in Part 3 when he kisses Martha Plimpton on the cheek. In less than a fraction of a second there is a look that passes between them that has the net effect of 100,000 volts of electricity. It is unmistakable yet it happens so fast that you catch your breath. It is an amazing moment of theatrical legerdemain. How did they do that? It is truly a mystery of the craft. Obviously, Martha Plimpton is also a huge asset to Part 3, as is Josh Hamilton.
So, congratulations to Lincoln Center for having the chutzpah to commit their entire season to this one project. It's admirable, if not commercial. And it's artistically satisfying even if it isn't finally emotionally compelling. Nonetheless, having the guts to put this before their subscription audience displays an admirable willingness to take chances. Theatergoers should be equally audacious because even if the sum of its parts don't add up quite so well, some of those parts are incalculably impressive.
Finally, anyone who has waited to see all three parts either close together or in the upcoming marathon performances may reap additional rewards. It can't but help to see this sprawling story over one or two days.
The Coast of Utopia at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre. Form more information, visit Telecharge.com.