Horowitz: The Acrobat at Rest
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
February 9, 2007
"Hey! Try to focus!" shouts Wanda Toscanini Horowitz in the middle of Stellios Manolakakis's new bio-play, Horowitz: The Acrobat at Rest. She is speaking to her husband, the world-renowned classical pianist, Vladimir Horowitz, but could just as well be speaking to Manolakakis himself (actually, she is—he also plays the title role). The author/star of Horowitz: The Acrobat at Rest shows himself to be both ambitious and fearless, and as a result this production is never dull. However, his skill and discipline as both an actor and a writer are not on par with his ambitions, making this an equally frustrating and confusing endeavor.
The play examines Horowitz's life at home during one of his notorious retirements, sometime between the 1960s and 1970s. The picture that's quickly revealed is one of mental instability and massive insecurity. Horowitz seemingly doesn't leave his apartment, or change out of his pajamas, for years at a time. He worries about his ability as a pianist, even though he's often heralded as the best of his kind in the world. And, he possesses a significantly short attention span, akin to that of a small child or a yappy dog. Horowitz cannot focus on any one thing—whether it's playing the piano, talking on the phone, or ranting about you-name-it—for longer than two or three minutes at a time. Throw in a total lack of impulse control, acute insensitivity, and a desperate need to be the center of Wanda's attention, and you've got a complete terror. It soon becomes clear that Horowitz's self-centeredness is borderline pathological.
It would seem that poor Wanda doesn't stand a chance of survival in such a household. But, her self-preservation mechanism is in better shape than one might think. As the child of another famous musician, conductor Arturo Toscanini, she's familiar with the whole tortured genius routine. Her constancy is the one thing that keeps Horowitz anchored to the present—or to anything at all.
It's also one of the only things that keep Horowitz from becoming completely unhinged. Wanda's efforts to cajole her husband back into performing are wily, creative, and manipulative as she tries everything from flattery to cheap shots. But, after a while, it's clear that she wants him to perform again as much for her own sake as for his. Yes, she loves him and all, but she'd also like some peace and quiet. With Horowitz and his constantly infantile behavior underfoot, there is little room in her life for anything else.
Horowitz's life is ripe for dramatization: his complex marriage to Wanda (he was allegedly homosexual, or at least bisexual), his compulsive need for her approval, his forsaken daughter (exiled to Italy, at his request, to live with her aunt). But, Manolakakis emphasizes Horowitz's grating domestic antics over everything else, much to the play's detriment. On one hand, I can't blame him: after all, he's trying to write himself a good part. On the other hand, the role ends up coming off as nothing more substantial than a stunt-like showcase.
Another part of this is attributable to Manolakakis's oversized performance as Horowitz. He huffs and puffs his way through the part trying to "act crazy," but fails to hit upon any emotional truth. His focus is strictly on the external, and the result is clownish and cartoonish. Manolakakis also has an unusually strong accent—he attempts Horowitz's Russian accent on top of his own Greek one—that makes it nearly impossible to understand anything he says. Alyssa Simon fares much better as Wanda, giving a centered and dignified performance highlighted by frequent flashes of dry wit, humor, and subtlety. She also pulls off a convincing Italian accent with ease.
There may a good play to be made out of Vladimir Horowitz's life, but, unfortunately, Horowitz: The Acrobat at Rest is not it. With a tighter focus and a stronger dramaturgical hand, perhaps it could be. But, as it stands for now, the world will have to wait for a better representation of this acrobat walking his singular tightrope.