Alfred Molina talked to God almost every night for two years, as Tevya in the 2004 Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Now playing the title role in “Howard Katz,” Patrick Marber’s searing and unsettling new play about a suicidal theatrical agent on the skids, he once again talks to God. But this time he is a Jew not only seriously disconnected from his religion but increasing so from his work and family. Molina, who previously earned accolades for his performance in Yasmina Reza’s “Art” in 1998, is giving a stunning performance that stands uniquely apart from anything he has done before. Without ever leaving the stage, he delivers a characterization that vibrates with a scalding and impassioned intensity. But Molina does not stand alone. Under the excellent direction of Doug Hughes, a strong supporting cast has been assigned multiple roles which they fulfill with zeal.
How about three for three for playwright Marber? It is generally regarded as true that Marber’s addiction to gambling (since cured) prompted him to write the well-received “Dealer’s Choice,” a first play that was presented in 1997 by the Manhattan Theater Club. His next play, “Closer,” was even more highly acclaimed when it subsequently appeared in 1999 on Broadway. It was apparently also inspired by various relationships from his life (based on information shared during an informal pre-performance lecture given by one of the educational directors at Roundabout). Marber also wrote the screenplay for the film version starring Julie Roberts, Natalie Portman, Jude Law, and Clive Owen.
But what are we to surmise regarding the genesis and significance of “Howard Katz,” a play that deals with the emotional and psychological disintegration of a 50-year-old man (not quite of Lear proportions). Based on what we know and ultimately find out during the course of the play and for all intents and purposes, Katz would normally be diagnosed as suffering with little more than a severe form of middle-age crises. Despite Katz’s dramatically served self-inquiry, some audience members might prefer to think of Katz’s condition as caused less by circumstances than by a chemical imbalance and easily monitored and controlled with therapy and drugs. But that, of course, would suppose a different sort of play. Although Katz is consumed by an inner rage that feeds upon itself, he is primarily fueled by an innate tragic-comic sensibility.
It is the critical, vindictive, and acerbically witty side of Katz’s nature that provides the play’s most intriguing resonance. Yet the cause of Katz’s pathological behavior is never clearly revealed. That remains the play’s most troubling enigma. It is to Marber’s credit that the way by which Katz attempts to find liberation from his despair is strewn with extremely funny dialogue and a series of telling and trenchant scenes that tingle with both cynical and sincere verity. The play opens with Katz sitting alone on a park bench — his thoughts initiating replays of pivotal confrontations leading up to this moment.
The play’s dynamics mainly revolve around Katz’s devolving relationships with his wife Jess, (Jessica Hecht); his “gentle” son, Ollie (Patrick Henney); his parents (Elizabeth Franz and Alvin Epstein); and family; acquaintances; and business associates, as played in various guises by Euan Morton, Max Baker, Charlotte Parry, and Edward Hajj. Morton is especially memorable as a fed-up actor receiving the brunt of Katz’s contempt, and also as a park hustler and a thug.
Despite his having a good if expectedly unnerving job representing B-list actors for a large agency, virtually daring his confounded wife, Jess, to engage him in a sick game of Russian roulette, Katz also finds little empathy for his father, who discloses a long-kept secret love affair. He is also angered by his brother, who has callously dismissed a long-time employee from the family’s barber shop in an attempt to attract a younger clientele. One of the play’s best scenes takes place in a gambling establishment with Katz trying to outsmart with a vengeance another gambler played with deliciously sophisticated savvy by Elizabeth Franz.
As Katz’s social skills unravel with ever-increasing increments of bitterness and rancor, he also appears smart enough to see that he is on a downward spiral of epic proportions. His only recourse appears to be reconciliation with an estranged God. However, as a strictly curious observer or as an interested bystander, you may begin to wonder what it will take for Howard to get a grip. Set designer Scott Pask has designed a single setting, a brick underpass in which various locales are made clear, or at least clearer than some of Katz’s motivations and resolves.
“Howard Katz,” Roundabout Theater Company at the Laura Pels Theater, 111 West 46th Street. $63.75 and $73.75. 212-719-1300.