It isn’t surprising that Romulus Linney’s aggressively schizophrenic play about Delmore Schwartz, "Klonsky and Schwartz," now playing at New Jersey Repertory Company, opens in a 1966 mental ward at New York’s Bellevue Hospital. The noted American poet has been brought there for observation by the police after he has assaulted a couple on a Manhattan street. The obviously delusional Schwartz (John FitzGibbon) is visited by his friend, Milton Klonsky (David Volin), the skilled essayist to whom he has long been a mentor. The play focuses on Schwartz’ declining sanity after he has left his job at Syracuse University to write poetry and live in New York City. Imagining that his wife was stolen by Nelson Rockefeller and believing he was told what to do by Dybbuks (plural), Schwartz is nevertheless urged by Klonsky to think rationally, to recall his childhood as the son of irrational, unhappily married Romanian immigrants.
Schwartz’s mental instability is dramatized in fits and starts following his release from Bellevue as a kind of neurotic vaudeville act (shades of Smith and Dale on speed) as the two writers review the high and low points of their tight but testy relationship. The fast staccato-paced dialogue is unleashed by the manically envious Klonsky and the manically depressive Schwartz in a lyrical point-counterpoint style.
Each man is afforded his own time in the spotlight, each confronted by his own demons. They had begun their unlikely friendship after Klonsky has submitted a poem in a contest judged by an expectedly condescending Schwartz. As egomaniacal as he was brilliant, Schwartz’s influence on the 10 years younger Klonsky proved profound, even as it served to block Klonsky’s creative flow ("You think any nutball idea that comes into your head is poetry, and you can’t tell the difference").
The play moves speedily through brief scenes that focus more on their emotional instability than on their intellectual gifts. Both men marry and divorce, Schwartz twice. And as they concede in concert: "Why should I make one Jewish girl miserable when I can make a hundred shicksas happy."
Although he doesn’t get the opportunity to rant and rave like his co-star, Volin is impressive as the more conventionally dysfunctional Klonsky, whose preoccupation with horse racing and womanizing may also have led to the artistic paralysis that consumed him during his friendship with Schwartz. When you have friends like Schwartz who tells him, "You’re just a prick posing as a poet," you don’t need a bad review from a literary critic.
Fitzgibbon has the tougher assignment as he has been apparently encouraged by director Suzanne Barabas to enforce and validate Schwartz’s nutty behavior (which includes drunken binges and waving a loaded gun around in Bryant Park), with an excess of flailing hands and nervous body tics. One can’t say that Fitzgibbon isn’t acting up a storm.
The quirky structure of the dialogue, some of it almost singspiel in delivery, suggests that Linney sees his play as a lyrical convergence of these commiserating but creative poet/writers. The delivery is sharp but it eventually grows wearisome. Although he always wanted to write like Schwartz but couldn’t, Klonsky was a friend to the end of Schwartz’s life when he was found dead, destitute, and alone in a rat trap of a hotel room. Klonsky is the one who would identify Schwartz at the morgue.
It is interesting to note that Linney maintained a friendship with Klonsky during the last 10 years of Schwartz’s life. But he maintains that Klonsky never once talked about Schwartz even after his death. Following Schwartz’s death, Klonsky began writing with a renewed intensity. One can see the motivation behind Linney’s compelling, if also slightly unnerving, play. Various locales are simply established within Jessica Parks’ setting featuring a neon-lit cityscape.