|Klonsky and Schwartz|
An artful, glancing fugue on the theme of anxiety of influence, Romulus Linney's new play Klonsky and Schwartz views poet Delmore Schwartz (William Wise), the would-be Whitman of post-WWII America, through the sympathetic if not entirely admiring lens of his semi-protégé and sometime confidant Milton Klonsky (Chris Ceraso). It's a valid and suggestive choice, not least because it implies a touching modesty on Linney's part that he identifies with Klonsky, whose own self-conscious literary efforts pale before those of the Great Man.
Chris Ceraso & William Wise in Klonsky and Schwartz
But it's a portrait seen through a shot glass darkly, at best, as the play riffs through milestones and meditations like a genteel two-man poetry slam. On a raked platform adorned with two arch-backed chairs and two narrow bookshelves, and splashed with crosshatched city shadows (set and lights are by Maruti Evans), Schwartz and Klonsky group and regroup to argue, plot and reminisce. Or they stop for soliloquies as slight and decorative as smoke.
Schwartz was an unabashed if erratic late modernist, a poet and prose stylist who drank deep of life's big quandaries, along with most of the alcohol in his vicinity, with a wistful chaser of Jewish guilt. This was not the survivor's guilt of the post-Holocaust era, nor quite the existential angst of the nuclear age, but something more culturally specific: the remorseful soul-sickness of the ruthless individualist who has shed his immigrant skin to chase the tail of American success, only to find it a cruel chimera. It is a theme in the same key as Arthur Miller's plays and Saul Bellow's novels, which have only grown in stature while Schwartz's verse has receded, swept aside by the groovy Beats and postmodernists who followed him.
Schwartz's battered posterity, though, has as much to do with the man as with his work, as Linney's play notes with a gentle, frustrated mournfulness. As the 1950s and '60s march on, Klonsky helplessly watches as his idol dissipates into drink, debt and insanity. This late-model Schwartz rants about New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, whom he crazily suspects of stealing his second wife; raves at a dybbuk he claims speaks to him from the observation tower of the Empire State Building; itemizes a pill and alcohol intake that would have shamed Keith Moon. Occasionally, when rescued from a compulsory visit to Bellevue or met in the transient dark of Bryant Park, he still shares a poem or an insight with his old friend.
As this volatile, maddening madman, Wise is altogether too calm and circumspect, with a sleepy nonchalance that evokes John Goodman on Nyquil. This gives his recitations of Schwartz's poetry a lovely, conversational offhandedness--if nothing else, this play will send you out craving a fresh look at Schwartz's tough, tender poems--and lends some of his brusquer moments a delightfully crisp, can't-be-bothered hauteur. When he meets a young, eager Klonsky and gleefully decimates his writing, or delivers a lecture acidly dismissing his erstwhile idol T.S. Eliot, Wise is engagingly crabby. But he's less convincing as the gibbering, gun-wielding nutjob Schwartz resembled near the end.
Ceraso's Klonsky cuts a strange-looking figure for an aspiring aesthete. With his ever-loosened tie and hangdog expression, he comes off a bit like Schwartz's reluctant parole officer, and every inch a man who'd rather be chasing skirts at the local sports bar. To watch him agonize over a couplet is to witness a weirdly compelling mismatch of ambition and effort, though Linney seems to want us to see Salieri chafing at the pressure of knowing he'll never be a Mozart.
Director Jamie Richards has mounted a sleek, credible production--too sleek, in fact, for anything in Linney's impressionistic piece to stick deep. Schwartz famously memorialized himself and his appetites in a self-deprecating poem, "The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me." Klonsky and Schwartz has the effect of reducing him to a hedgehog, blind and lumbering, and always crawling back to his hole underground.
Klonsky and Schwartz
By Romulus Linney
Directed by Jamie Richards
Ensemble Studio Theatre