While filing out of the Laura Pels Theatre after Patrick Marber’s Howard Katz, a woman of a certain age was heard exclaiming, “A tour de force!” Having brandished that over-ripe phrase myself on probably too many occasions, I was amazed to hear it applied to the play we’d just sat through. Had I been misusing it all this time? Was the expression actually French for “a total waste of time”?
According to Dictionary.com, the primary definition is “an exceptional achievement by an artist, author, or the like, that is unlikely to be equaled by that person or anyone else…” Which isn’t so far off the mark; Marber – who penned Closer, that stunning autopsy of love and lust in London – has, with Howard Katz, delivered an exceptionally uninteresting achievement that is unlikely to be equaled, or at least not repeated. One hopes.
Speaking of the British, they have a pithy single-word summation that would more apt: rubbish. The play is a landfill of sorts, stuffed to capacity with enormously squandered talent and you-don’t-even-want-to-know-how-much money. It would make great fodder for a long-winded rant against the decadence of bloated, bourgeois, subscriber-set theater.
But first, I can’t stress enough that no part of the Howard Katz debacle is the fault of the excellent ensemble of actors, led by the masterful Alfred Molina (Fiddler on the Roof, Spiderman 2, Dead Man) in the title role. They all try valiantly and, with the exception of Molina and the ten-year-old Patrick Henney, slip seamlessly in and out of multiple roles with obvious skill. The sets by Scott Pask and lighting (Christopher Akerlind) are equally top-shelf and set the appropriate atmosphere of bitter gloom. Doug Hughes’s direction is a bit too slick for my taste, but God bless his heart for keeping this hearse of a play trucking.
Try as they may, Howard Katz is dead on arrival. The story is as simple as it is unenlightening: A powerful but unhappy talent agent has a mid-life crisis, loses his job and family, and ends up a broken man living on the street and toying with suicide. The play methodically charts his downward spiral in a series of episodes in which he alienates himself from family and friends, until he’s left with nothing but a yarmulke, a bottle of pills and his father’s ashes in an urn. Does he commit suicide or find a renewed faith in God that gives him the strength to carry on?
That’s obviously a rhetorical question; after all, the Roundabout has elderly patrons to please. But the more important question is this: why should any of them care? As sketched by Marber, Howard Katz is a miserable man of means, but the play offers no insight into his unhappiness beyond, “I’m bored.” And his breakdown is just as superficial; we see a man flailing about, flying into rages and destroying himself with booze and gambling, but none of the consequences change him much – that is until the rote redemption in the play’s final minutes. And since he’s such an obnoxious jackass, there’s no empathy or catharsis to be had either.
The character’s lack of depth is made strikingly apparent in Molina’s unremarkable performance. There’s simply just not much to work with here, and it proves too great a void even for an actor of his caliber. His furious scenery-chewing is fun enough, and some of the scenes are not without their laughs. But the lame jokes outnumber the winners; when trying to buy a gun to shoot himself Katz asks if he can inspect it before he buys it. To which the sketchy seller retorts, “What, like Antiques Roadshow?”
Nevertheless, if my fellow theatergoer had an experience of tour de force proportions, I’m happy for her. But in a restaurant after the show, I also overheard nearby diners discussing the play. One man wondered, “Do you think this show was something you’ll look back on and remember?” Personally, I’ll be happy to start forgetting as soon as this sentence is finished.
Howard who? Never heard of him.
Howard Katz continues through May 6th. Tickets. (Photo of Euan Morton and Alfred Molina by Sara Krulwich.)