The Catskill Sonata
by Willard Manus
THE CATSKILL SONATA looks at the borscht belt circa 1957 from the point of view of a small hotel catering to a Jewish clientele, many of whom are leftist artists and writers made welcome by the idealistic owner, Anne Rosen (Lisa Robins). Michael Elias's possibly autobiographical play has been a success in L.A.; after premiering last March at the Hayworth Theatre, it has transferred to the Matrix for an extended run.
There are several distinctive things about SONATA, notably the lavish, detailed set by Desma Murphy, which wouldn't look out of place on Broadway. And the play itself has many laudable qualities: humor, social bite, much snappy, New York-flavored dialogue. Elias, a successful tv/movie writer, manages to paint a convincing portrait of life in a Catskills bungalow colony. His canvas is full; besides Anne, there's a busboy (the excellent Daryl Sabara), a longtime guest (Kip Gilman), the manager (John Ciccolini), a pianist (Lisa Chess), a handyman doubling as Joseph Stalin (Jeff Corbett), Anne's businessman boyfriend (Zack Norman), and a young girl (Kate James).
All of these characters have their side stories which Elias desperately juggles in an attempt to hide the play's major flaw, the lack of a central, driving conflict, one that imparts urgency and suspense to the proceedings. The closest he comes to it is in the relationship between Gilman and Sabara. The former plays Dave Vaughn, a hard-drinking, pot-smoking, cynical TV writer; the latter a young, naive, would-be writer who has come to Dave for advice and support. Instead Dave trashes the kid's first effort, working on the dubious theory that if you aren't tough enough to take cruel, "honest" criticism, you'll never be a writer.
Hovering over Dave--and in fact everyone at the hotel--is the dark cloud of McCarthyism. This is the late 1950s when the anti-communist crusade (Red Channels, blacklisting) was in full swing, impacting the lives of fellow travelers like Dave (Stalin appears in one of his nightmares, by the way).
SONATA'S political concerns are valid, but they haven't been effectively explored and dramatized. On top of that, the play hasn't been well served by its director, Paul Mazursky, who has directed many a fine movie but has turned in a clunky job this time around, especially with some of his main actors.
SONATA is a hit play; not, however, with this reviewer.
(Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave. Call 800-838-3006 or visit brownpapertickets.com)