EmptyFame is a funny thing. After getting lots of attention for his stage and screen versions of the emotional minefield "Closer," Patrick Marber earned an Oscar nomination for his juicy "Notes on a Scandal" script. So far, so good.
But as one's name becomes associated with hits, expectations are raised. So it's particularly unfortunate that Marber's new play, "Howard Katz," is a pedestrian, all-too-familiar tale about a successful man's downward spiral.
It's a case of been-there, done-that from the get-go. As the play opens, the title character wakes up from an evening's slumber on a park bench in London, at which point Howard (Alfred Molina) reflects on how his life became a nightmare.
Flashbacks depict each aspect of his existence going awry, starting with his job as a powerful celebrity agent, where bombast and arrogance overcome basic work skills. Then there's his inability to give love to his faithful wife and troubled 10-year-old son. And to hit every base, Howard is also seen having a fractious relationship with his parents and brother.
Told in an episodic style over 90 intermissionless minutes, the end result is utterly unremarkable. No ground is traveled that hasn't been covered in everything from "Citizen Kane" to "Requiem for a Heavyweight," complete with the anti-hero being reduced to one humiliation after the next. More damning is the fact that the character never seems crazed enough to suffer such a fate, never mind being unable to correct his situation.
Worse, Howard has little to no complexity or nuance. So when there's a late-in-the-action moral conundrum, it rings false. Ditto for his talks with God, despite a slew of references to his Jewish upbringing. It's like a bad satire of "Fiddler on the Roof's" Tevye.
Journeyman director Doug Hughes adds to the piece's flawed nature by having most of the supporting cast juggle sundry roles. That's fine in and of itself, except those characters usually look so similar to each other that it's hard to tell which persona they're supposed to be. A new wig or different style of attire would have been a good place to start.
The production's only worthwhile component is its star, the ever-arresting Molina. Although given little to work with, Molina exudes such an undeniable sense of presence and charisma that he proves compelling regardless. When he's onstage, he's a magnet for every viewer's attention.
Unfortunately, his eight co-stars are criminally underused, starting with Elizabeth Franz's turn as Howard's mother, as well as one of her peers. Granted, Franz can't always shine as she did in her Tony-winning performance in 1998's "Death of a Salesman" revival. But here, she's reduced to briefly taking up space about once every 20 minutes.
Euan Morton, best remembered for playing Boy George in "Taboo," tackles four roles, all inconsequential, while troupers like Jessica Hecht from "After the Fall" and Max Baker of "Abigail's Party" virtually blend into the ho-hum series of brick arches that pass for a set design.
Accordingly, the best one can say is that the vehicle is suitably named; "Howard Katz" is just as lackluster, unimaginative and uninspired as its title.
Presented byRoundabout Theatre Company
Credits: Playwright: Patrick Marber; Director: Doug Hughes; Set designer: Scott Pask; Costume designer: Catherine Zuber; Lighting designer: Christopher Akerlind; Sound designer/original music: David Van Tieghem; Fight director: Rick Sordelet. Cast: Howard Katz: Alfred Molina; Robin: Euan Morton; Bern: Max Baker; Nat: Charlotte Parry; Norm: Edward Hajj; Jo: Alvin Epstein; Ollie: Patrick Henney; Ellie: Elizabeth Franz; Jess: Jessica Hecht.