By Mark Kennedy
Patrick Marber's play, "Howard Katz," has been called the least coherent of his works. It's been labeled "risky" and "messy" and "difficult."
That's not from critics — that's from the playwright himself.
"Of everything I've written, it's the most obscure to me," Marber says. "It's the play that feels mysterious to me in some strange way. It's like a play that exists in my blind spot."
Trust Marber to have finally written something that makes even him uncomfortable. Usually, his acidic dramas — "Dealer's Choice" and "Closer" and the Academy Award-nominated screenplay for "Notes on a Scandal" — make only audiences wince.
"It's just a riskier play than my other ones. It doesn't tell as much story and its about mood and atmosphere," he says. "It's just one of those difficult plays."
"Howard Katz" is a dark little tale about a burned-out show biz agent in a mid-life crisis. During his downward spiral, he walks out on his wife and kids, gets fired, rails at God and loses his money at poker. Destitute on a park bench, he contemplates suicide.
"I'm searching for my soul," Katz tells his landlord at one point. "Inside me is magnificence. It's in there. And when I find it..."
"You'll pay the rent?" the landlord responds.
The point of all this angst? It turns out that by the end of the play all of it is really unnecessary. "I've spent time 'pondering' and you know what I discovered? I have no hidden depths," a desperate Katz tells his former employers.
Marber calls this a comedy.
"Not necessarily a funny one — but it's funny up to a point," he says. "It's a comedy about a foolish man. He's a silly man who thinks there's more to him than meets the eye. And he finds out that, actually, there isn't."
The play makes its off-Broadway debut six years after it was introduced in England, directed by Marber. This production, directed by Doug Hughes, stars Alfred Molina in the title role.
"It's a blessed relief to not be directing it here because having done it once I know how difficult a play it is to direct. I have no desire to do it again," Marber says.
Hughes, the 2005 Tony-winning director of "Doubt," sees it as a remarkable cautionary tale, presciently written by a then 37-year-old unmarried and childless man.
"There's something to my mind really exhilarating about how blunt and daring Patrick's writing is and how sentimentality seems to be kryptonite to him," Hughes says.
"I think it was a real imaginative act for England's hot new playwright to prognosticate and devise this character who is in the middle of life and we watch make decisions that strip him down, break him down."
For New York, Marber has turned his play from a two-act play to one, taken out several scenes and written a number of others. Perhaps the biggest change, though, is to himself. Since finishing it in 2001, Marber married actress Debra Gillett and the couple had three children. Now 42, Marber is getting closer to the age of Katz, who is around 50.
"It felt like the end of something. Immediately after writing this play, I got married, had children. I came to recognize it as the last play of my bachelor days," he says. "I think I have a better understanding of what it would be like to reach a point in your life and not have anywhere to go, to be that lost."
Believe it or not, Marber began his career as a standup comedian, later branching out into radio on the cult show "On the Hour" and then working with funny man Steve Coogan.
For the better part of a decade, he struggled to write his first play. "I'm still dipping my nib in the ink of that frustration," he says.
The dam burst when he channeled his own gambling addiction into the play "Dealer's Choice," a story about six poker players, each with their own demons. He became the first playwright in the history of the Royal National Theatre to direct his own first play in 1995.
"Nothing has been as exciting as that first feeling of, 'They're going to do my play, and I'm going to direct it, and it's going to be published,'" he says.
His second play, "Closer," became a bigger hit, transferring to Broadway for a Tony-nominated run in 1999. Its searing look at sexual relationships was later adapted by Marber into a film starring Clive Owen, Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman and Jude Law.
It was while writing "Closer" that Marber came across a strange character knocking around in his head. "There was this other guy who didn't fit in the play, this older guy," he says. "And over a period of years I realized, 'Oh, he's called Howard Katz. He's a completely different beast. He doesn't belong in 'Closer' at all.'"
That doesn't mean it was easy to write. "The form of it is less coherent than other things I've written, and consciously so. I needed to write something that had a more kaleidoscopic form," he says. "It's a sort of messy play about a messy man, I think."
Marber, who has also directed works by David Mamet and Harold Pinter in England, saw his "Don Juan in Soho" nominated for a Olivier award and his "After Miss Julie" broadcast on the BBC. He's also become an in-demand adapter, writing Patrick McGrath's "Asylum" and Zoe Heller's "Notes on a Scandal" for the screen.
He finds it equally difficult adapting another's work as it is to write his own material. "I'm not conscious of using different muscles," he says. What he hates is writing prose or journalism.
"That's what really terrifies me — having to use my own voice," he says. "I think dialogue — the dramatic form — suits me much better temperamentally. I can disguise myself better."
In his own plays, Marber says he isn't interested in communicating a moral lesson as much as make people feel their common humanity. He hopes audiences will leave the theater with a "weird, tingly feeling."
"I want them to have a slightly abstract, poetic experience with a play, to be moved in ways they don't quite understand, to experience something that doesn't fully make sense, to be moved in mysterious ways — that's what I want a play to do."
His latest project is adapting a screenplay for "Saturday," Ian McEwan's novel about a London neurosurgeon set against the backdrop of the Iraq war.
"I'm very attracted to write a protagonist who's content. I haven't done that before: to explore the mind of a man who is basically happy with what he has," says Marber. "It's going to be a real challenge for me to work on that and keep it interesting."
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