EmptyMatrix Theatre, Hollywood
Through Sept. 2
Set at a small Catskills resort in the 1950s, during the time when writers were blacklisted for alleged Communist sympathies, Michael Elias' play is shot through with the kind of nostalgia that signals deep personal involvement. But it leaves out the details of why this means something to him, and so it fails to engage the audience with what is the emotional "back story."
The familiar elements that make up the cast of staff and entertainers who have assembled during the week before the "season" opens at the modest resort run by Anne Rosen (Lisa Robins) include Dave Vaughn (Kip Gilman), a morally bankrupt, womanizing comedy writer recently blacklisted from Arthur Godfrey's primetime CBS show; Rae Isaacs (Lisa Chess), a pianist (one of Vaughn's former lovers, and a one-time musical favorite of Stalin) forever rehearsing Beethoven's "Waldstein" sonata; Irwin Shukovsky (Daryl Sabara), an aspiring writer-type young waiter; and Leo Schwartz (Zack Norman), who wants to marry Rosen and take her away from her struggling hotel business.
Robins is the one cast member who gives a truly memorable performance, her beauty and vulnerable, proud enthusiasm for life projecting a kind of Jill Clayburgh-like radiant charisma and charm. She has few enough lines to convey her love for her work and the people she works with and brings together, but she makes of those lines something strong and shining.
Sabara makes of his coming-of-age role a lovely, graceful characterization that lacks a relationship other than with the dour Vaughn to utilize him more fully. Norman's crass businessman has energy and pizzazz.
In the nominal starring role, Gilman is onstage for virtually the entire 90 minutes and dominates it with his moody presence, snapping off wisecracks with the studied, cynical assurance of a professional writer. But his keeping to the negative side of his character and experience, perhaps the director's decision, ultimately makes him too unsympathetic and lacking in energy to carry the play. It doesn't help that the supposed chemistry between he and Chess is almost nonexistent.
Paul Mazursky's direction is sure and precise, enabling the talented cast to play their parts with conviction and a certain sense of authenticity. He uses the entire stage with purpose and even some cinematic dimensionality.
The one-set production has a rough, homey quality that fits the time and mood, and the retro costumes suffice, even though they look like they were assembled on a limited budget.
"The Catstkill Sonata" is reopening at the Matrix after a successful run at the Hayworth Theatre, and it undoubtedly will attract many who either remember the time as a turning-point in the liberalizing of American intellectual freedoms, or the Catskills as a place where they experienced their last fling with innocence. But there is little to suggest the fear and desolation that the blacklisting caused, and not much either of the joys and pleasures that the Catskills represented.
THE CATSKILL SONATA
Presented by Neversink River Prods.
Playwright: Michael Elias
Director: Paul Mazursky
Stage manager: Gil Tordjman
Set designer: Desma Murphy
Lighting designer: J. Kent Inasy
Sound designer: Christopher Game
Costume designer: Traci McWain
Prop designer: Goar Galstyan
Choreographer: Janet Roston
Dave Vaughn: Kip Gilman
Irwin Shukovsky: Daryl Sabara
Rae Isaacs: Lisa Chess
Anne Rosen: Lisa Robins
Ernie Korn: John Ciccolini
Leo Schwartz: Zack Norman
Butch: Jeff Corbett
Nancy Siegal: Kate James
Joseph Stalin: Elya Baskin