The Catskill Sonata
Screen and television writer Michael Elias has crafted an evocative little memory play set at a struggling Catskills hotel in the late 1950s and, since the playwright was born and raised in Woodbourne, New York and IMDb tells us he was born in 1940, I wouldn’t be surprised if an enormous portion of the heartfelt The Catskill Sonata wasn’t only autobiographical but quite liberating. As such, Elias’ poignant tale is incredibly affecting but also, as is the case with so many writers who discover the freedom of creating for the stage for the first time, it’s also more than a little indulgent.
Kip Gilman does a masterfully understated job as the put-upon protagonist of this Sonata, a role that leaves him onstage nearly 100% of the time, not even given a tiny respite to wipe away the considerable perspiration he produces, the only thing that belies the actor’s studied onstage comfort at such damnable close range as the Matrix Theatre’s wide playing space, a venue where it’s hard for first row patrons to keep their feet from resting on the stage (especially the clueless ones who don’t realize that particular act horrifies theatre artists almost as much as someone evoking the name of the Scottish Play backstage).
To make his task even more difficult, Gilman’s shattered but still rampant oneliner- generating unemployed TV writer Dave Vaughn doesn’t move around much, just sits quietly on an outdoor settee all but nailed to the far stage-right floorboards on the patio of Rosen’s Mountainview Hotel, his character inventing nonstop sarcastic quips delivered out of the side of his mouth, smoking joints, drinking screwdrivers from a carafe, and fucking with the lives of everyone he encounters.
There are many people Dave so encounters, too, and whenever one character leaves at the end of a scene, another immediately enters, at one point actually causing Dave to say, “Next!” Still, under the direction of master film director Paul Mazursky, the continuously relaxed and in control Gilman finds infinite ways to conjure Dave and his glaringly theatricalized weekend in the mountains as real, despite the obviousness of the script—which isn’t a terminal problem either, only still to be worked out a bit by Elias, something I’m sure he’s used to doing on his “day” job.
The most touching relationship in this Sonata is shared by Dave and Irwin Shukovsky (playing here by Daryl Sabara, who’s maturing into quite the fine young actor since his days growing up in the Spy Kids movies), an eager writer-wannabe teenaged bellboy at the Mountinview to whom Dave plays diffident—but always amused, which at first seems what keeps him there—mentor. The gossamer moments between Gilman and Sabara, so good at playing a kid who finds a revelation a minute at this stage of his worldview-expanding life, are the play’s most golden, something that is artfully and heartbreakingly explained in the script and revealed to Sonata’s emotionally touched audience at the end of Act Two.
There’s also a wonderfully sweet scene between Sabara and Kate James as Nancy Siegel, a fetching teenaged hotel guest ready to spread her… er, wings… a tad before the summer’s over. Unfortunately for Irwin, who can only see Nancy through the traditional spermy haze of budding adolescence, it’s Dave she’s considering spreading for, not him, and the pathos Sabara delivers at that realization is almost Chaplinesque.
Set wizard Desma Murphy’s charmingly rundown patio and lighting designer J. Kent Inasy’s tree-filtered sunlight both must be credited for helping to generate exactly the right mood and the ensemble is generally lovely, particularly Lisa Chess as a discouraged concert pianist whose career flopped when she was publicly linked with “the commies” after a command appearance before Stalin in the Soviet Union, and Lisa Robins as Annie Rosen, the owner of the hotel who’s soon to lose it in a mass of debts, about the only thing filling her dilapidated hotel’s empty rooms.
Both Chess and Robins are all but perfect as the unforgettably strong ladies in Dave’s life, although Robins’ mane of beautiful curly hair upstages her performance once again this year—and her one descent into tears suffers as much from close proximity to the audience as Gilman’s perspiration reveals how fast he’s running in place to make this all work.
John Ciccolini is an asset as Ernie Korn, woebegone manager of the hotel, but for almost everyone else depicted besides Dave and Irwin, his peripheral character, surely created from the memory of someone dear to the playwright, has nowhere to go in the storyline. This is also true of Jeff Corbett in his one unnecessary scene as the facility’s hipflask-swigging handyman and Zack Norman as Leo Schwartz, Annie’s persistent businessman prig of a suitor who, when at one point he barks to Dave “I don’t know why I’m telling you this!,” made me want to shout out from my seat: “Exposition!”
The guy with the biggest credibility problem here is Elya Baskin, who gamely appears as a cartoonish Joseph Stalin in a completely unnecessary comedic dream sequence seemingly lifted from another play altogether (or the author’s half-century-old dream he never forgot), ending with his deceased world leader dancing with Dave, a bizarrely out of place and incongruous scene which at least gives Gilman a chance to leave his settee on the veranda for a couple of welcome minutes.
Every first time playwright suffers from wanting to say everything he ever wanted to say and honor everyone from his past still haunting his memory, but that conceit severely hampers an otherwise interesting—and genuinely entertaining—Catskill Sonata. If Elias focused on the relationship between Dave, Irwin and Nancy and either dumped the minor characters or gave them more of a purpose for being there, this could be a masterful, cleverly amusing, and truly worthy play which could stand up in time in its portrayal of American life in the mid-20th century as enduringly as anything by Miller, Odets or Inge—and with far less dated dialogue to make it worthy of a future.
The Catskill Sonata plays through Sept.2 at the Matrix, 7657 Melrose Av., LA; for tickets, call 800.838.3006.