Patrick Marber’s Midlife Monster’s Meltdown; On Watching Utopia From a Very Distant Coast

031207 article heilpern Patrick Marber’s Midlife Monster’s Meltdown; On Watching Utopia From a Very Distant CoastPatrick Marber’s Howard Katz—first staged at London’s National Theatre in 2001—is this smart playwright’s middle-age-meltdown play. Desperate heroes in midlife crisis are as common in theater as memory plays of lost youth, but Mr. Marber’s is unusual in one startling aspect: His crude, floundering hero, Katz, in search of meaning and a soul, learns that he isn’t up to the task. “Inside me is magnificence,” he cries at one high point. But he’s wrong. Howard Katz is doomed to smallness grasping at largeness, but he lacks the tragic grandeur of Saul Bellow’s Herzog trying to figure out his place in the meaningless mess of being alive.

Mr. Marber’s perversely pleasurable amorality play Closer was essentially about the absence of love among the hip, young middle classes of England in the cynical 90’s. In Howard Katz, an older Marber (who recently wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Notes on a Scandal) offers us a London Jewish milieu with a loveless—and brutally funny—hero spiraling to self-destruction.

The Brits love nothing more than a good, honest rant. Fury and complaint are the grit in their outwardly phlegmatic temperament. (See the plays of John Osborne, whose middle-aged hero in crisis, Bill Maitland in Inadmissible Evidence, Katz fleetingly resembles). The opening scene of Mr. Marber’s new play reveals Katz shuddering awake on a bench, fighting. He’s fighting nothing and everything. He’s fighting the air.

He’s then approached by a young man who is probably a mugger. The scene progresses in Mr. Marber’s compact and dangerous style, like the best of David Mamet. “You wanna go somewhere?” the boy asks, viewing the hapless Katz with disdain.

“Eh?”

Go somewhere?”

“Oh, no.”

“Twenty quid, suck your cock.”

“It’s six o’clock in the morning! Will you piss off for a fiver?”

“Yeah, I can do that …. Give us your wallet.”

“No!”

“Go on, you can afford it.”

“Is this a mugging or a guilt-trip?” Katz asks. He gives him his wallet eventually. He’s got nothing to lose; he’s contemplating suicide. “Don’t do it, mate,” the boy advises. “You might regret it.”

Katz is a scumbag talent agent who makes the venal Hollywood agent in Douglas Carter Beane’s recent The Little Dog That Laughed look sweet. “It’s my JOB, it’s what I DO!” he screams at a client who’s decided to leave him. “I’m the bastard so you look sweet, it’s called representation.”

He’s a bastard who willfully destroys himself and loses everything—his clients, business partners, loving wife, adored child, everyone—until he becomes a pathetic non-person, an invisible beggar.

“I just want you to be content,” Katz’s mother says to him. “Not even happy …. ”

Nothing works for this man—not even the passing solace of a hooker. Mr. Marber relishes sex scenes. (“Are you flirting with me?” the antihero of Closer asks the chick spread before him.) “Can’t you just pretend to be a ‘tart with a heart’!” Katz asks the clinical hooker Cheryl. He gives up. “Thanks for a really good time,” he snaps. “And may I say, Cheryl, that you are a truly lousy prostitute. In fact, my dear, you are an amateur. And it’s people like you who make this country the joke of the Western world.”

Only an indignant Englishman would see a second-rate prostitute as a symbol of Britain’s national decline. But, alas, Howard Katz promises more than it delivers. At only 90 minutes, it lacks the scale of a true odyssey of the soul. Its inherent sketchiness doesn’t exhaust or burn.

Alfred Molina is a fine actor, but his Katz on the skids is too hangdog to inspire awe. Mr. Marber’s domestic scenes verge on the pro forma—the showdowns with the elderly father who dies overnight, with the rival sibling who resents him, with the bewildered wife who leaves him. There’s even a token appeal to an indifferent God. (“Would you give me a clue?”)

It’s a pity. Howard Katz is directed by Doug Hughes for the Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels, and Mr. Molina leads an exceptional cast, including Alvin Epstein as the father and Elizabeth Franz as the mother. Scott Pask’s set is an uncharacteristically serious lapse—a semi-subterranean brick eyesore that fails to connect to the play in any way I could figure out. Sometimes the windows light up, like a pinball machine hitting the jackpot.

A BRIEF AFTERWORD CONCERNING Tom Stoppard’s trilogy, The Coast of Utopia. It so happens that, with each of my reluctantly negative reviews, the good folks at Lincoln Center have seated me further and further back at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, until by the third installment I found myself banished from row E to the second-to-last row. All things considered, it’s a relief there isn’t a Part 4 or I’d be seated with a pair of binoculars on Amsterdam Avenue.

Part 3, Salvage, proved the weakest of Mr. Stoppard’s trilogy, as if the playwright and his director, Jack O’Brien, were exhausted. We learn more of the world of Mr. Stoppard’s hero, Alexander Herzen, in troubled exile in England, the launch of his influential radical paper, The Bell, and his numerous infidelities (again). Yet as with the previous episodes, one slumps at a declamatory, inherently undramatic slog through Russian history rather than find pleasure in a sweeping saga that’s truly alive with ideas and emotion.

Admirers of Mr. Stoppard’s eight-hour extravaganza claim it to be an absorbing, messy soap opera that’s “just like life”—but what sort of compliment is that? Or comfort for the distinguished playwright? It struck me throughout that Mr. Stoppard got bogged down in his own admirable but grandiose ambition and curiosity. His overcrowded canvas teeming with colliding intellectuals we feel we ought to know actually trivializes momentous events to such an extent that the freeing of the serfs whizzes merrily by in the time it takes to dance the kazatsky.

It was a joy to see, among a number of fine performances in repertory, Martha Plimpton come into her own in the major role of Natasha—Ogarev’s second wife and Herzen’s impetuous lover. I was disappointed by Brian F. O’Byrne’s flat Herzen, however. Mr. O’Byrne scarcely grew at all in his pivotal role. He’s an actor for neurotics and killers, as he’s proved in the past to quiet, transfixing effect. But Herzen the romantic hero defeats him.

Part 3 only confirmed that The Coast of Utopia’s shimmeringly pretty set is a decorative distraction. We could be anywhere. Mr. O’Brien, the impossibly hard-working director, proves himself to be a first-rate traffic cop (rather than an inspired originator). His simplistic staging of revolution in Paris, with noisy, excited peasants waving baguettes and flags, came uncomfortably close to a bus-and-truck version of Les Misérables. His painterly borrowings in Part 2 were a wee bit blatant, to say the least. But he gets the crowd scenes on- and offstage expertly via a dizzying, stately revolve, smoke and mirrors. (The entrances of Ethan Hawke’s anarchist Bakunin are preceded moodily every time by a curl of cigarette smoke in shadowy light.)

Crowd scenes aside, The Coast of Utopia finally proves a surprisingly small epic. The three or four figures—or less—at the center of the sprawling trilogy are frequently dwarfed by the vast space of the Vivian Beaumont stage. But none of that would matter much had I been able to respond to Lincoln Center’s committed theatrical event as enthusiastically as I’d hoped.

When all’s said and done, I remain unconvinced, I’m afraid, that Mr. Stoppard’s smooth, skeptical wit and urbane ironies are best suited to the turbulence of the Russian soul.