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A CurtainUp Review
Klonsky & Schwartz
by Julia Furay
It’s the story of Schwartz (Bill Wise), teetering on the edge of sanity, and his best friend, the brilliant but perennially blocked Milton Klonsky (Chris Ceraso). The time is 1966 and Schwartz, a famed poet long washed up, is fresh from a stint at Bellevue. He’s taken to popping pills, drinking to abandon, and wandering midtown New York at all hours of the night. Klonsky’s problems are far less over-the-top, but still personally frustrating: he may be smart, but his proximity to Schwartz’s genius keeps him too intimidated to ever actually put anything much on paper. More importantly, he has to try to take care of Schwartz, the friend who’s overshadowed and belittled him since they met thirty years earlier.
As we flash back to that first meeting and many moments in between, and we see just how complex their relationship is. Klonsky pushes Schwartz to let go of all the paranoia and obsessions, to try to live with reason. Schwartz, in turn, tries to teach Klonsky to release his trapped intellect in order to express himself through poetry. They argue when they first meet. They debate through their marriages and divorces, and bicker even through Schwartz’s intermittent stays at Bellevue. As Schwartz’s mental state deteriorates along with his second marriage, he’s hilariously convinced that Nelson Rockefeller has stolen his wife and hears voices from the top of the Empire State. His delusions eventually head towards violence.
Klonsky and Schwartz's arguments are a strange mix of intellectual discourse and emotional outburst: from their rumination on just how much they lost when their parents left the Old World for New York to a panicky Schwartz's verbally attacking his wife about her supposed indiscretions. Linney's stylistic mishmash brings to mind the characters’ poetry: Schwartz’s poems were dynamic and passionate, Klonsky’s were introspective and intellectual. It’s fascinating, then, that the play straddles between these two writing styles, but it's ultimately more like Klonsky's work than Schwartz's.
Whatever is happening on stage, whether it’s an emotional breakdown or just highbrow banter, Klonsky and Schwartz feels like two smart men talking about themselves. It’s like psychoanalysis.
Part of the problems have to do with the direction. Jamie Richard’s otherwise clean, spare production unfolds at an almost frenetic clip. Though both Ceraso and Wise give articulate and expressive performances, we’re left with little time to relish their insights and wonder along with them before we’re barreling into the next moment, with all new subjects and discussions and problems before us.
The play is at its best early on, when Schwartz is telling a fable to a Bellevue doctor to prove his sanity and explain his childhood. In this introduction to Schwartz Wise wins the audience over immediately, plowing on at his own leisurely pace, despite the doctor’s frequent attempts to interrupt. Would that the rest of the production had this confidence and storytelling prowess.
But it isn’t just the production that's at fault. Linney’s script is rich with ideas and theatricality, featuring lots of quick dialogue and explosive confrontations. But one aspect of the piece is mystifying. Including Schwartz’s poetry throughout, adds to the cornucopia of thought-provoking elements. However, because the poems are never really allowed to take over, they are generally wasted; for instance: Schwartz, in a haze, will start reciting one of his poems, but he never gets beyond a line or two, before Klonsky will make a plot-related interjection about Schwartz’s frequent trips to Bellevue or his delusions. Thus, whenever we start to be taken in by the rich, dense imagery, it’s always fleeting. It's hard to understand why the playwright has so effectively hemmed in Schwartz’s poetic voice.
Despite its flaws, the play has much to enjoy. Most of all there are the already noted performances. Wise and Ceraso rarely miss a beat, and they play off each other’s rhythms flawlessly. The production is lit and designed handsomely by Maruti Evans; with two chairs and a lot of lights somehow conveying the essense of plastic 1960s architecture and design.
Several times during the not quite hour and a half long play, the two men exchange a list of some of the great joys of being alive and a poet in New York: Times Square. The Village. Baseball. Long nights. Red dawns. This list is repeated and spoken with reverence so that you're struck with the notion that these things, along with poetry itself, are all parts of life that need time to soak in and be savored. Klonsky and Schwartz, however, doesn’t quite treat itself with the same level of patience and marvel. Its unwieldy subjects need time for wrong turns, for moments of hilarity, and for reflection not to mention dramatic momentum and character development. Whenever this does happen we have a dense, clever, pensive piece of theatre. Unfortunately, for for the most part, it is haunting for what it might have been rather than what it is.
For Simon Saltzman's review of a different production of this play in New Jersey gohere.
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