The Catskill Sonata

McCarthyism, vodka cocktails, the spirit of Joseph Stalin, and the trials and tribulations of bohemian New Yorkers leaning toward the political left make for a quirky but potent mix in this poignant comedy by Michael Elias (one of the screenwriters of The Jerk). It's set during the 1950s at a vacation resort in New York's Catskill Mountains, a milieu apparently familiar to Elias and the play's director, veteran filmmaker Paul Mazursky (Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, An Unmarried Woman); both worked the Borscht Belt circuit in their younger years. What starts as an amusing portrait of faded idealism takes on more dimensions as the 90-minute play progresses. The sweet turns to the tart and then to the bitter in this sharply observed view of dreams and disillusionment.

Each summer Anne Rosen (Lisa Robins), proprietor of a struggling mountainside hotel, hosts an invited group of writers, musicians, and other artiste types, who mingle with the idle-rich clientele, arguing politics and sipping screwdrivers. Focal character Dave (Kip Gilman), a writer on the Arthur Godfrey variety show, is a womanizing cynic who amuses some guests and turns others off. He offers advice to a young bellhop (Daryl Sabara) on love and the boy's aspirations to write. As secrets are revealed, Dave's devil-may-care exterior gives way to suppressed anguish.

Mazursky masterfully orchestrates the efforts of a superb cast, creating a rich array of characterizations. Gilman is sublime as the sardonic failed writer, insightfully depicting the man's disparate sides — blithe bon vivant and wounded soul. Robins excels as the kindly hostess, and Lisa Chess is impressive as a saucy, blacklisted concert pianist. In a dream sequence, Elya Baskin contributes a hilarious turn as Stalin. Other players (Sabara, John Ciccolini, Jeff Corbett, Zack Norman, Kate James, and Baskin) offer first-rate support.

The atmosphere is greatly enhanced by Desma Murphy's magnificent set, J. Kent Inasy's lighting, Christopher Game's sound, Traci McWain's costumes, and Goar Galstyan's props. Though Elias' dense concentration of characters and ideas could benefit from clarification at times, Mazursky and company give the script an invigorating and thought-provoking premiere rendition.

Presented by Neversink River Productions at The Hayworth, 2509 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m. (Also Sun. 7 p.m. Mar. 18. Dark Thu. 8 p.m. Mar. 17.) Mar. 9-Apr. 14. (800) 838-3006.