Howard’s End


Notes on a scoundrel …

A roguish writer and raconteur, having been Oscar-nominated for his "Notes on a Scandal" screenplay this year, Patrick Marber has, in creating Howard Katz, as catastrophic a self-collapsing cur as seen on stage in recent years.

Marber has taken the job of self-inflicted innocent away from Job and given it to a Jewishly jaded agent on whose life the jury went out long ago; Katz has fallen so far from grace he can't even see her laughing at him from where he's tumbling into oblivion.

Scamp scattered to the sidelines of life? At a time when Katz is due to exit right from the world stage, the spot has followed him onstage as "Howard Katz" opens Thursday, March 1, given its American premiere by the Roundabout Theatre Company, at the Laura Pels Theatre off-Broadway.

Claws in, Katz: Katz's doggerel is an attempt to seek poetic justice in a world that acknowledges no rhyme or reason in his existence.

A once top-notch second-tier actor's agent, he has been scripted offstage as agents of change have, as vicissitudes have it, cast him as victim.

Cemented inside a cell of his own choosing made from the mortar of martyrdom, Katz can place his one call in a cell system with no support: God, can you hear me now?

Marber has gotten a good hearing both here in this country and in his native England, where the Wimbledon-weaned writer has played love matches on and off the court of critical acclaim.

His preening promise in the play "Dealer's Choice" dealt him the attention that would gain closure on that promise with "Closer," which he adapted into a much honored screenplay with Natalie Portman and Jude Law.

In many ways, Marber has taken the laws of nature and exposed them to the winds of wary that wrack all relationships. If his heart is in the right place, it is a site more ghastly than godly.

As he wrote in "Closer": "Ever seen a human heart? It looks like a fist wrapped in blood."

Beating relationships to a bloody pulp is not pulp fiction, but artistry in the way Marber maneuvers. But give credit where credit is due, says Marber of that cringing quote from "Closer."

"I never thought it," he quips. "A character in 'Closer' thought it. But he was quite upset and angry at the time."

Is the notoriously protean poker player saying this with a straight face? Flush out the truth: "I have always been mellow," he demurs. "But no one believes it."

Certainly, Howard Katz wouldn't cotton to him as … kittenish. All's not lost; wait … yes it is. At the writer's hands — and in actor Alfred Molina's graceful and grandiloquent gestures — Katz has lost his job, his family, his sense of Judaism.

The kipah's no keeper; all's not rites with the world, Katz discovers, trying to tell why the tallis he once had as a kid now serves to strangle him.

Is Katz dogged forever by doubt, a wandering Jew wondering what God hath wrought? Marber never phones it in. At 50, Katz "is indeed a wandering Jew. But not the wandering Jew; he's another bloke entirely."

Oh — and oy — that kibitzer. A Jew himself, Marber morphs into some characters of his creation. At 42, can he handle the eight-year-older Katz, whose middle-age nights in shining armor have given way to mourning sun glare at daybreak?

"I feel great kinship with Howard though," he warns, "I fear becoming him."

Fear factors into the play's content not so much in its characters not finding happiness as not finding contentment. But then, how to be happy or content when life forever plays itself out of context?

Marber, an erstwhile actor, reportedly once told his fellow London lads and ladies that he wrote "Howard Katz" as a warning shot as to what can happen when one doesn't land on his two feet — nine lives or not.

It has been a good life for Marber, who writes and reads into it what he needs. A retro romanticist who has a wife in his own life, he has scripted Feb. 14 for others as a Valentine's daze.

As Katz might confirm: "He's a pro, and I respect that."

But a pro in bringing to light life's cons. Scholarly scamp? Rabbi or renegade student? Either way, the bimah bounces as Marber beams that sly smile, a sunshine snipe that paradoxically tarnishes as it torches. "I'm not a rabbi, I'm a student," he says. "That's why I write; to try to learn what I believe."

Existentialist in extremis? Did Becket beget Katz? Waiting for, God knows, an answer.

"One of Howard Katz's many problems is that he doesn't know his place; spiritually, metaphysically and literally," says Marber.

Which means that Vladimir and Estragon are goners if they want him to tag along? Well, reasons the clever, caustic Marber, Katz has "never seen 'Waiting for Godot'; [he] just knows it's some play where nothing happens twice."

First, much happens in "Katz." But will the character be absolved of his absurdist life by turning to God? Can spirituality be a self-starter in a land of sycophants, which, in this case, is not Hollywood but holy London?

And, oh, how about those potshots at agents that rifle through the script. Isn't Marber afraid that even if he can do lunch in this town anymore that his Caesar salad will be spoiled? After all, look what they did to Caesar.

"Writers love to kvetch about their agents," he allows, "hence the many stories of venal 10-percenters."

Ah, the unkindest cut of all. "Who wouldn't feel conflicted about a person who takes 10 percent of your hard-earned income? I mean, do we celebrate the taxman?"

Beware the Ides of … April?

"That said, I have to admit I have two very good and kind agents; one in the States, one in the U.K. And I love them both dearly."

Feel the love … not, as far as Katz is concerned. But then, Katz never did get a chance to make a killing. Lost opportunity: What better job could he have had than representing the illicitly ill-advised teachers of "Notes on a Scandal" in selling their story to Hollywood?

"Howard would have loved a slice of the 'Notes' action," muses Marber.

Alas, the notable Howard Katz must come clean and enter Marber's scripted mikveh of the soul eventually. And just what might he be doing now, that ignoble 10-percenter with a discounted and decimated soul?

"He's feeding the ducks a little crust and giggling to himself," reassures the man who brought him to London's National Theatre before bringing him off-Broadway.

Oh, have some sympathy if not empathy, Marber. After all, you created him. Wouldn't the writer, a notoriously five-card stud himself, be willing to lend Katz a hand by dealing him in?

"Involve him into a poker game?! That schm— … sure," says Marber.

No anti- Katz feeling here; just no … ante.

"Problem is," reasons the writer of the problem-plagued character he created who's more wild card than king, "he's got no dough."   


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