Monday, February 12, 2007

PLAY: "Howard Katz"

Howard Katz is a play for sadists: if you want to see how much a man can suffer, how far a man can fall, come on down to Patrick Marber's latest, and by far crudest, work. The show is far from bad, and Alfred Molina plays the lead role with great conviction. But there's never a happy moment for him, only a series of endless regrets, explosive confrontations, awkward renunciations, and painful discoveries. This is a bit like theatrical masturbation on Marber's part, to create a shallow character only to simply punish him for it. At least director Doug Hughes has the decency to rush through it, although it still takes ninety minutes to do so.

There isn't much that's original here, which begs the question of why Howard Katz is worth seeing, aside from the brand names affixed so proudly to it. The portions of the play that could've been developed to add some dimensions -- such as Katz's self-loathing of his Jewish heritage or the toughness his father forced upon him with beatings -- seem to have been culled instead, and for the most part we have to take the playwright's word (literally) for the events of the past. As for what we are left with in the present, they seem to be recycled segments from other plays: Katz's long foreshadowed climax at the Blackjack table doesn't hold an ounce of tension, and the whole thing is so telegraphed, we might as well have just assumed that part as well.

Neil LaBute is another playwright who likes to torture his characters, but at least when he does so, like in The Shape of Things, there's a moral at the end of the tunnel, or a wry sense of turnabout. But Howard Katz doesn't offer anything beyond a catchphrase, and while the play might be an honest depiction of a man at the end of his rope, the choice to start the show long after the man has started to fall . . . it's Death of a Salesman without the tragedy, for Katz never seems to have had it good, nor to have ever deceived himself into thinking as much either. Well, if Marber really loves this play of his, maybe it's Death of a Playwright -- the tragic fall from the brilliance of Closer to the blindness of Howard Katz.

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