Playwright

The late 1950’s in early June.  It is the start of another summer season at Rosen’s Hotel, ‘an adult getaway in the Catskill Mountains’.  Rosen’s caters to bohemian writers, musicians and artists of the day.  This year is different.  The blacklist looms large and some of her favorites have lost their jobs. Dave Vaughn, a lusty and chronically sarcastic writer for Arthur Godfrey holds court on the main patio, hiding out from his own tragic losses past and present. 

 

Praise for The Catskill Sonata

It took me back to the most glorious experience of my life, the Borscht Belt. Very funny and surprisingly touching. —Mel Brooks

 

“The Catskill Sonata is a surprisingly poignant period piece with a very serious purpose... an unexpectedly wrenching play.” —LA Times

“Michael Elias so superbly lays out a sadly funny world.” —LA Weekly

 

March 2007 Los angeles times, Theater beat:
'sonata' finds its way to harmony 

Paul Mazursky and Michael Elias are preceded by their reputations in "The Catskill Sonata," now in its world premiere at the Hayworth. Mazursky is arguably best known for directing such offbeat comedies as "Moscow on the Hudson" and "Down and Out in Beverly Hills," whereas Elias co-wrote such goofy films as "The Jerk" before segueing into half-hour television comedy.

In this instance, it's best to put your preconceptions aside. Elias' play, staged by Mazursky in his first theatrical foray in 40 years, is no rollicking Borscht Belt retrospective but a surprisingly poignant period piece with a

very serious purpose.

 

Set in the late 1950s, the action takes place on the patio of Rosen's Mountainview Hotel -- a halcyon setting lovingly evoked by set and lighting designers Desma Murphy and J. Kent Inasy, respectively. Hotel owner Anne Rosen (Lisa Robins) routinely invites a select crew of artists for a free weekend before the start of her busy season. But it's the height of the McCarthy scare, and Rosen's reputation as a haven for communists is keeping the regulars away in droves.

Not Dave Vaughn (Kip Gilman), a hard-drinking television writer who seems largely untouched by the chaos surrounding him. But scratch Dave's mordantly witty facade and you'll find recent, raw loss -- the kind of personal catastrophe that makes his apparent blitheness all the more heroic. 

 

Dave whiles away his time interacting with the hotel's staff and guest, including his old lover Rae (Lisa Chess), a blacklisted concert pianist, and teenage busboy Irwin Shukovsky (Daryl Sabara), an aspiring writer who embraces the

prickly Dave as a role model, with painful results. 

 

Mazursky's staging gets off to a slow start. Indeed, the play's opening scenes are so muted they make us wonder if we're wasting our time. 

 

In this case, a little patience pays off. After the initial lull, Mazursky raises the stakes in intensity and purpose all the way to a shattering denouement. Masterly in his offhandedness, Gilman heads an exceptional cast in Elias' amusing, unexpectedly wrenching play. Dave's advice to young Irwin on what it takes to be a writer is hilarious, one of the most cogent analyses of the writerly art ever to be articulated on the stage.

 

— F. Kathleen Foley

"The Catskill Sonata," Hayworth Theatre, 2509 Wilshire, Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays. Some exceptions. Ends April 14. $20. (800) 838-3006. brownpapertickets.com. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

March 2007 LA weekly: Stalin's fading Progeny

If Warren Beatty’s movie Reds was a wide-screen ode to the birth of American communism, then Michael Elias’ 90-minute one-act play, The Catskill Sonata (currently playing at the Hayworth), can be seen as an ignominious requiem for that movement. Set in the late 1950s in upstate New York’s borscht belt (“two hours from the bridge,” as a character from the city boasts), its gelatinous center is a former fellow traveler named Dave Vaughn (Kip Gilman), now deep in his middle-aged cups. Although many of his friends in the arts and entertainment have been blacklisted, Dave, a comedy writer for TV’s Arthur Godfrey Show, has somehow managed to sail under the redbaiters’ radar — even though in his youth, he hung out with the kinds of people

and made the kind of donations that got many an idealist in hot water after World War II.

This is Dave’s luck and his curse: Because of his good fortune, he suffers from acute survivor’s guilt, which, along with the puritanical drift of 1950s America, leads him each summer to the sanctuary of Rosen’s Mountainview Hotel. There, slumped in an Adirondack chair, he can forget his past dreams and his present marriage through a regimen of downing pitchers of screwdrivers and chasing skirts. All on the dime of the hotel’s owner, Anne Rosen (Lisa Robins), a kindhearted widow who believes that it pays to give artists complimentary room and board because of the business their reputations presumably draw.

 

Emphasis on “presumably,” since all is not so rosy at Rosen’s. As New York’s middle-class Jews are increasingly taking their vacations in a rebuilt Europe, Anne can barely make ends meet. Through Rosen’s declining fortunes, Leo Schwartz (Zack Norman), a rough-edged businessman, keeps pressuring Anne to marry him and sell the hotel to a Hasidic buyer he’s helpfully lined up. Meanwhile, Dave pretends to be writing a work of art in this kosher Yaddo even as he rekindles an affair with an old friend — a concert pianist named Rae Isaacs (Lisa Chess). This, while fending off the persistent teenage bellhop and budding writer Irwin

Shikovsky (Daryl Sabara), who seeks Dave’s advice and approval.

Elias pulls off two notable achievements. He has written a play with potboiler potential yet, remarkably, has his characters do nothing; he also sets the story in the hothouse of Marxist politics without making a single speech. The closest anyone gets to standing on top of a seltzer crate to lecture is when Rae dreamily recalls the evening she performed for Stalin — an event that would soon prove a career ender in Hollywood. She then begins to interrogate Dave as to where he has misplaced his egalitarian dreams and how he’s managed to dodge a summons to name names.

Rae’s implied accusation slowly emerges, but Dave easily parries the suggestion that he cut a deal somewhere, and persuades Rae to bed him after her evening concert. Sonata ambles along under a cloud of collaboration and bad faith, steeped in the drowsy malaise of Chekhovian comedy. Our early impulse is to embrace Dave as the only honest voice at the hotel, but before long, it’s plain that the cynical gag writer’s emotions run no deeper than his one-liners. Any doubts are laid to rest when he cruelly savages the short story that young Irwin has begged Dave to read. At first, we believe Dave’s assessment of Irwin’s work as a

product of adolescent enthusiasm, but as he reads Irwin’s tale aloud to him, we realize what a promising writer the bellhop really is. And what a putz Dave is.

Elias meticulously, almost lovingly, portrays a sad twilight haunted by idealists, folk musicians, and sculptors “who carved sad-faced peasants” — an American sunset where the Weavers and Beethoven vie for attention and guests remember the Rosenbergs and argue against German rearmament. It’s also a milieu of delusion in which Jews who should know better still adore Stalin and the Soviet Union — even after Khrushchev’s speech denouncing Stalin, and proof of the latter’s anti-Semitic purges.

The hotel’s collective angst erupts in a vaudeville-like dream scene in which Dave imagines the arrival of Joseph Stalin (Elya Baskin) at Rosen’s. In this reverie, Stalin explains why he’s so alluring to Dave’s friends and even offers Dave a writing gig at the Kremlin.

However, for all its strategic restraint, Elias’ play doesn’t seem completely formed, but suggests the prototype of a longer work. There’s only so far you can take the story of a moral vacuum like Dave, and Elias wisely confines the story to one act. (To paraphrase a memorable newspaper quip about a particular Israeli government, Dave doesn’t have memorable newspaper quip about a particular Israeli government, Dave doesn’t have the strength to fall.)

Still, perhaps figuring his central character needs some kind of motivation, Elias stumbles a little by tacking on a soliloquy at the very end in which Dave blames his behavior on the death of his young son. “What son?” we ask, eventually recalling a very early conversation between Dave and Anne Rosen, into which Elias planted some passing comments about Dave’s dead infant boy.

The problem is that this early reference is quickly forgotten and is clearly there to justify Dave’s later summation to us — a jury — passing sentence on Dave’s life. It’s one thing, however, to have the dead child weigh on Dave throughout the play, but here it’s presented the way countless films, TV shows and plays conveniently explain adult motivations on the presence or absence of a child in the character’s life. I for one am completely happy to accept Dave as he is — he doesn’t have to pin his behavior on a dead baby — and have the play end where it should, in the bittersweet moment he and Irwin part company.

This last monologue notwithstanding, there’s not a wasted gesture or insincere laugh in this production, whose melancholy tone is authoritatively established by set designer Desma Murphy’s rustic hotel front and patio, and by J. Kent Inasy’s wan lighting plot. Paul Mazursky, the film director, stages Sonata with all the care and empathy of a country doctor. In the same way that Elias gives every one of his characters a spotlight moment, Mazursky ensures that all his actors are completely engaged with the material, even when listening on the sidelines. Fittingly, the show’s stellar moments belong to Gilman, an actor who completely inhabits his laconic Dave. He appears as a mixture of Ernie Kovacs and Walter Matthau, and his every slouch and tired shrug offer an editorial about the postwar American character.

And, in a small but sharply observed turn, Zack Norman offers a wry personality sketch as the wheeler-dealer Leo, an old streetwise hustler who isn’t as ignorant as his loud sports jacket suggests. If anything, his assessment of Dave is even more to the point than Rae’s criticisms: “Irony allows you to be malicious but not in an obvious way. Indirect, oblique. Cowardly. Like you,” Leo says, pointing a tanned, leathery finger at Dave from a place of hurt far deeper than Rae’s.

Still, after listening to Leo’s I-can-get-it-for-you-wholesale spiel, we find something creepy about his façade — especially when we realize there’s nothing behind it. What makes this avaricious character thoroughly disturbing, though, is how familiar he seems, half a century after his visit to Rosen’s.

 

— Steven Mikulan

THE CATSKILL SONATA | By MICHAEL ELIAS | At the Hayworth, 2509 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. |  Through April 14 | (800) 838-3006