nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
September 5, 2007
The specter of death hangs heavily over Joel Shatzky's new drama, Atonement. Zelman, the play's protagonist, is a world famous conductor who has just been diagnosed with an unnamed terminal illness. He is haunted by the spirit of his dead father (who, for some reason, is named "The Young Man" in the play's program), a failed classical musician who never escaped the oppressive grip of Nazi-occupied Europe. But Zelman has a hard time dealing with both his own mortality and his father, choosing blind denial instead. "I have come to regard death, for the most part, as unnecessary," he tells the audience early on, then defiantly puffs on a cigarette against his doctor's wishes.
Zelman is modeled after a well-known archetype (or stereotype, depending on how one wants to look at it): the self-involved but brilliant artist who treats others like dirt, but gets away with it because of his talent. I was hopeful that by throwing such a character into a scenario where he must face his own death, Shatzky might be able to dust some of the cobwebs off this tried-and-true dramatic figure. Unfortunately, Atonement has nothing new to say about the type of person Zelman represents. Shatzky's script is long on catharsis but short on conflict, tension, and plot, and receives a wildly uneven production by The Queens Players. Under the direction of Rich Ferraioli, Atonement is reduced to overheated soap opera theatrics.
Zelman, who is in his mid-to-late 70s, is flanked by Naomi, his much younger wife (she's in her late 30s), and David, his twentysomething son. Naomi is a dutiful wife but has grown ambivalent to her husband's hostile indifference: she freely admits that the reason they ended up together was because, as she tells him, "I jumped into your bed out of curiosity and decided to stay." David is a talented musician in his own right, but cannot get any attention, much less respect, from his father. No matter how accomplished he becomes, he is dogged by the shadow of failure because of Zelman's cold detachment.
Shatzky relies heavily on confrontational emotional outbursts to propel Atonement forward. Lots of heated recriminations are thrown back and forth, but the author fails to answer the most fundamental question: what is he trying to say with this play? I never could tell. And what is it about Zelman that audiences are supposed to like or empathize with? His relentless apathy towards everyone around him makes him—and therefore the rest of the play—thoroughly one-dimensional. The audience stops learning very quickly here.
Ferraioli's direction doesn't help matters, I'm afraid. His minimalist approach—the only furniture is a few blocks; everyone is dressed in black; the lighting design consists of lights up, lights down—sacrifices clarity for the sake of...well, I don't know what. Locations and timeline are frequently unclear, especially in the scenes where Zelman's father appears. These are conversations that take place only in his mind, but Ferraioli doesn't approach them, in either tone or appearance, any differently than the rest of the play. This caused a lot of confusion for me, as I couldn't figure who The Young Man was supposed to be until Act II. A specially designated light cue or two reserved just for these scenes could so easily help matters, but such a cue never happens.
The cast is mostly lost at sea under these conditions. Ferraioli does nothing to unify them, allowing them instead to indulge in a wide range of acting styles that don't serve them or the play. The main offender is Bill Krakauer in the lead role of Zelman. His bizarre vocal cadences and rhythms suggest that he's acting via satellite from another planet. He is not in synch with his fellow castmates, and appears unaffected by anything they do. It's hard to know whether the numerous long pauses he indulges in are intentional or if he just doesn't know his lines, but either way he grinds Atonement to a screeching halt.
Considering all of this, it's difficult to discern whether there's even a good play hidden somewhere in Atonement. Perhaps there is, but it remains elusive within the confines of this current production.