Klonsky & Schwartz
nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
December 2, 2005
Romulus Linney’s new play Klonsky & Schwartz brings to life the literary figures Delmore Schwartz and Milton Klonsky, and delivers an interesting interpretation of a long but needy and destructive friendship.
The play, which takes place in the '60s, begins with a recording of a Yiddish tenor singing “Romania, Romania” followed by the appearance of Klonsky, who reads a letter from the National Endowment for the Arts asking for his help in finding Schwartz. As openers go, it is curiously slow, but it sets the stage for what is to come. The play is Klonsky’s journey to find his friend and mentor, and in doing so, he relives their 25-year relationship.
What ensues is a combination of narration and flashback by Klonsky of the long but difficult friendship between him as protégé to the brilliant, but psychologically unstable poet Schwartz. In his search for Schwartz, Klonsky takes us through re-enactments of their initial meeting, bouts at Bellevue, marriages and divorces, growing up Jewish and Romanian, drinking, Klonsky’s gambling, bitter battles over writing, and Klonsky’s excessive editing and writer’s block. During these re-enactments, it is always Schwartz who is obsessively concerned with Schwartz, and Klonsky, ever admiring, who waits on him during his many hours of need.
Director Jamie Richards keeps the rapid-fire dialog moving. Lines of Schwartz’s poetry bounce off Klonsky’s dialog as the two characters bound from subject to subject. Both William Wise and Chris Ceraso deliver their lines with amazing dexterity. Ceraso brings the necessary grounding to Klonsky that helps Schwartz see through some of his delusions. In one incident, Schwartz is certain that Nelson Rockefeller seduced his wife. Klonsky points out that Rockefeller is in India. Schwartz is still in doubt, but Klonsky persists. Proof of it is on the front pages of two newspapers.
Schwartz enjoys Klonsky’s admiration, and flaunts his superiority by belittling Klonsky’s over-editing and ultimately his limited output. Wise gives Schwartz the mercurial range of the brilliant and unstable: arrogance, depression, and madness. The subject provides plenty of fertile material. Schwartz is arrogant about his work, depressed and paranoid about his failed marriages, and slips into madness unannounced. Wise is particularly effective as the mentor, insisting that Klonsky read Blake, belittling the authors Klonsky is interested in, and ridiculing the few lines Klonsky writes. Wise delivers a fine abusive superego when he hurls “No one will remember you without me.” Klonsky recognizes this truth, but sticks around because he is in awe of his mentor.
So, why didn’t I care about these characters? Partly because a great deal of my energy went into unraveling certain mysteries: where is the action taking place, which character is talking, and what year is it? Linney’s script ricochets from Bellevue to Bryant Park to his university office and elsewhere. Equally fast, the characters move from subject to subject faster than a racquetball off the side wall. At times, it went right past me. An initial voiceover which I thought was a psychiatrist questioning Schwartz at Bellevue was actually Klonsky, or was it Klonsky narrating the part of the psychiatrist? I thought the action was Klonsky’s search for Schwartz, but of course there must be flashbacks to support his narrative. It was not until the end that I realized it was all a flashback, but I wasn’t sure of the order. This might have been obvious in another play, but Linney’s dialog moves at lightning speed, with Schwartz at times quoting his poetry when he responds to Klonsky. In addition, the resonance of the song “Romania, Romania,” which started the play, stuck with me. But, it wasn’t until well into the play that I learned the importance of Klonsky's Romanian heritage. This didn’t warrant an opening slot for the song. It proved only a distraction. The play runs only 90 minutes—still, too long to sustain this many challenges. It plumb wore me down. The most disappointing of all is that these conundrums were of little consequence, because Klonksy and Schwartz is about the relationship between the two men and not about plot. So, the confusion turned out to be unimportant.
Maruti Evans’s set and lighting help define time and place. The useful scrims framed by neat, purple arches allow projections of backdrops. However, the sparse bookshelves reflect more the neat psychiatric ward at Bellevue than the office of a widely read literary figure at a university. The simple movement of two chairs designates the change of location. Evans's beautiful lighting also gives helpful signals. This should be enough to clarify the mysteries. But, it isn’t.
What is always interesting in relationships such as this is why someone like Milton Klonsky—smart, young and ambitious—keeps coming back for more of Schwartz’s abuse. Linney gives an exciting glimpse of the intellectual dynamic that went on between them. It is clear that Klonsky willingly submits to Schwartz’s mentoring. It is also clear that Schwartz’s very being paralyzes him. Only Schwartz’s death releases Klonsky to satisfy his own intellectual curiosity and to write seven books in ten years. 25 years as a protégé prepared him for this output.