Take my life, please


By Scott Harrah

Alfred Molina hits rock bottom for his career-high performance

Although American audiences primarily know Alfred Molina for his role in the Hollywood blockbuster “Spider-Man 2” with Tobey Maguire, his stage work on this side of the Atlantic has not exactly been acclaimed or particularly noteworthy — until now. Just three years ago, the British star played the legendary Teyve in a lukewarm revival of “Fiddler on the Roof” in which he was not terribly convincing as the singing and dancing Jewish father obsessed with tradition. However, Molina is nothing less than incandescent in Patrick Marber’s one-act drama “Howard Katz,” the story of a down-on-his-luck Jewish showbiz talent agent in modern-day London. The show, which was originally produced back in 2001 at London’s National Theatre, recently opened for a limited run at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre.

In “Howard Katz,” Molina brilliantly plays the title character as the proverbial “schlemiel,” that disparaging Yiddish slang term for an unlucky, awkward man. He is everything that “Fiddler’s” Teyve is not: emotionally disconnected from his family, his career, and his Jewish faith. He may wear a yarmulke, but Katz is a man so distanced from his religion that he wonders if God answers his prayers, and he cannot read the mourner’s Kaddish prayer in Hebrew when his father dies suddenly.

In the opening scene, Katz sits on a bench in a run-down London park at six in the morning, contemplating suicide. British actor Euan Morton — best known to New Yorkers for portraying a young Boy George in the ill-fated Broadway musical “Taboo” — plays Robin, a street urchin/hustler/mugger that stumbles across Katz and offers him everything from sex to self-help advice in exchange for money. Katz politely declines and offers the guy his wallet and watch if he will just go away. The rest of the story is engrossing but somewhat predictable as we watch subsequent scenes that show exactly how and why Katz’s life has become so bleak that he wants to just end it.

Playwright Patrick Marber, author of the Oscar-nominated screenplays for “Notes on a Scandal” and “Closer,” has written a potent midlife-crisis tale that would not be nearly as effective without the strong performances of Molina and Morton. For one thing, the two actors are part of a mere handful of cast members with authentic British accents, and Molina and Morton imbue their characters with the necessary emotional intensity needed to propel forward Marber’s story of a life gone terribly astray. Morton is equally effective in a dual role as one’s of Katz’s unsatisfied show-business clients, Ricky Barnes.

What’s wrong in Howard Katz’s life? Everything. He is asked to leave his job at a talent agency because his abrasive and erratic behavior is forcing the company to lose high-profile clients. His devoted wife Jess (Jessica Hecht) loves him but isn’t happy with their marriage, and he soon separates from her and his troubled young son Ollie (Patrick Henney). He gets into heated arguments with his father Jo (Alvin Epstein), a working-class barber who is depressed because his longtime mistress just left him. He also cannot stand his brother Bern (Max Baker), an argumentative man that works for his dad, or his constantly kvetching mother Ellie (Elizabeth Franz). Even a surly prostitute he seeks the services of, Nat (Charlotte Parry), cannot tolerate Katz’s acerbic demeanor.

Once Katz’s father dies, he is cremated (going against Jewish tradition per the man’s request). Katz spends the rest of the play carrying around his father’s ashes, perhaps out of guilt because the last time he spoke to his dad, they had a brutal argument. Katz, a man who is loathsome enough to strike his own prepubescent son, is a pathetic character indeed: We see scenes in which he hangs out in a seedy hotel and a casino, gambling away all his money. But Molina gives him enough depth and desperation to make us actually care as the guy spirals downward. Whenever Molina is on stage, he immediately demands our attention and we are riveted to his every word. Doug Hughes directs everything at a rapid pace, but some of the cast members have trouble with the British accent and obviously needed a better dialect coach. Regardless, the show is truly a vehicle for Molina. With every verbal outburst, nervous gesture and sigh as Katz unravels mentally, Molina gives the performance of his career.