NEW YORK — “What is it, a little midlife crisis?” asks Robin (Euan Morton), as he happens upon the title character on a park bench looking rather ragged in his expensive suit in “Howard Katz,” which opened off-Broadway last week.
“Yeah, but it’s bigger than me,” responds Katz, played by Alfred Molina (known to moviegoers for his role in “Frida” as artist Diego Rivera and to younger film fans as the villainous Doc Ock in “Spider-Man 2”).
There are many plays about the male midlife crisis. And there are many plays about one man’s search for his soul. Yet what keeps “Howard Katz,” produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company, from feeling like warmed-over territory is a fairly sharp script, tight staging and a flawless performance by its star.
“Katz,” which opened at London’s National Theatre in 2001, was written by Patrick Marber, a recent Oscar nominee for best adapted screenplay for “Notes on a Scandal.” Mike Nichols turned Mr. Marber’s previous play, “Closer,” into one of the sharpest relationship films of recent years. “Katz” isn’t nearly so shattering — or as good — as that brutal work, but it has the same intelligence, still committed to honesty, behind it.
The play opens with Katz on a park bench contemplating suicide. The rest of the drama explains, in a series of flashbacks, how he got there.
Katz is a London talent agent, with a fouler mouth — and perhaps an even fouler mind — than Ari Gold on HBO’s “Entourage.”
“I’m the bastard so you look sweet,” he tells a client. “It’s called representation.”
The problem is that Katz isn’t a bastard just when he must be. As his boss points out, he’s gone through 12 assistants so far this year — and it’s only June. He’s got a cynical view on his business (“It’s Sodom and Gomorrah out there, but without any scenery,” he reasons), but he can’t imagine he’d belong anywhere else.
The workaholic lifestyle, of course, creates friction at home. He tells his wife Jess (Jessica Hecht of “Sideways”) he’s bored, but doesn’t know why. (“Cheer up,” he tells her. “Misery’s my job.”) Katz wants to raise his son (10-year-old Patrick Henney) well, but is ill-equipped for the job. That relationship, with the only person who doesn’t accuse him of selling out, seems to be his only comfort. “This ordinary miracle, this strange little soldier come home from the war,” he says of his son’s birth, in one of Mr. Marber’s particularly poetic lines.
Katz soon loses that comfort, along with everything else, when his cynicism catches up to him.
He’s spent years helping to support his father (Alvin Epstein) and brother (Max Baker), who run a barber shop, but gets no appreciation from either. “You sold your soul so long ago, you don’t remember the price,” his self-righteous brother sneers.
Katz finally does search for that soul in a hunt for meaning that makes him re-evaluate his rejection of his roots. It’s a hard journey in modern, secular society. “Where can a Jew go to contemplate his life?” he asks. “A goy can check into a monastery.”
“Howard Katz” runs for 90 minutes with no intermission. Director Doug Hughes’ staging is just right, with vignettes from a life lost — and maybe found — coming at us with the speed and force of an automatic weapon.
It’s that lean script and staging, along with the star, that keep “Howard Katz” from feeling ponderous. Mr. Molina, a stage and film actor who helped make the 2004 Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof” a success, practically makes us forget we’re in a theater. He even makes a one-sided cell phone conversation look utterly real, and not at all stagey.
He’s supported by an excellent cast — although it was distracting to find actors playing multiple roles — with Mr. Epstein as the standout. A scene in which father and son argue at high pitch could have been over the top; these two veterans make it compelling.
Scott Pask’s set design, with its curved brick wall, adds to Katz’s sense of doom. Early in the play, the cynical agent says that people don’t change. And Mr. Marber, with his devotion to realism, ensures that Katz doesn’t — in some ways.
“I just want you to be content,” Katz’s mother tells him, “not even happy.”
But even contentment is hard to find, as Katz discovers, without first confronting the deepest parts of our souls… if we can find them.
WHAT: “Howard Katz” by Patrick Marber
WHERE: Roundabout Theatre Company at Laura Pels Theatre, 111 W. 46th St., New York
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Through May 6.
TICKETS: $63.75 to $73.75
PHONE: 212/719-1300 MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS