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