Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Margin Notes: The Karpovsky Variations

Barbara Broughton, Rivka Borek, J. Anthony Crane, and
Chris Thorn as Great Momma Rose, Julia Karpovsky,
Barry Karpovsky, and Harold Karpovsky. Photo by
Isaiah Tanenbaum Theatrical Photography.

Seen on: Monday, 5/16/22.
My grade: C+

Plot and Background
In the wake of the death of her estranged father Lawrence, Julia tries to reckon with her memories of him, her desire to be his musical equal, and her struggle to connect with her Jewish identity, as she keeps crossing paths with her father, her uncles, and her great grandmother Rose across airport lounges. Adam Kraar's play had a reading as part a Jewish Plays Project festival, was further developed at The Playwrights' Center and the New Group Theatre, and now has its world premiere with Boomerang Theatre Company.

What I Knew Beforehand
That it dealt with themes of Jewish identity and klezmer music.


Play: Julia wants to play us a song, but she can't find the notes for it: "If I could play you this song, you would love me." Her driving need in the play is two-fold: recapture the sound of klezmer music that her great grandparents knew in Poland, and through that sound gain her father's recognition and love; her father, a gifted but lapsed clarinet player who is now a nomadic journalist, able to be pinned down for conversations only in airport lounges while he waits for his connecting flight. Her father, who will never explain his antipathy toward his own musician father, nor why he can't come home for holidays, why he cannot give his brothers or his only child the space for them to exist concretely, groundedly, in a non-liminal space. Her father, who cannot even accept the gift of a pan of home-made kugel (though one should point out how inappropriate that is as a carry-on item on a transpacific flight). Julia is descended from a line of "wandering Jewish minstrels" and wants to follow that path, seemingly as nomadic as her father but pronouncedly more unhappy, less able to thrive in that rhythm.

Playwright Adam Kraar's notes on the performance style say that the transitions of the play should be "fluid, musical," that the form of the play is "jazz-like," the tone "similar to klezmer. Unfortunately what kept striking me during the performance was how decidedly unmusical the production is. There is a static stiffness, an unfamiliarity, unstructured pauses and interruptions. I wanted to feel the dialog had been choreographed, a slanting harmony and conversation of the instruments of the three brother's bombastically different personalities, the contrasting tenor of Maxine, the outsider, and somehow a combination of Julia's memories and Momma Rose, who remembers and loves them all, to bring them all together into something like music. Something like the song Julia is trying to play us. Too many scenes felt like they went on too long without making a significant enough contribution to the theme to justify their length, too many emotional beats are struck and struck again without significant contextual alteration. 

This play advertises itself as being at least in part about excavating a Jewish identity; however, I felt very few notes actually touched on that notion. Julia's fixation on her distant father is barely about how he didn't raise her Jewish, but more about how he never taught her to play the clarinet the way he could, the way he kept assuring her he eventually would.

I wanted to engage with this story. I wanted to recognize the characters, recognize myself in this family of descendants of the diaspora, of Jews who perhaps don't practice much but still hold certain tenets sacred. I wanted them to stop carrying the kugel pan sideways. I wanted more from this than I got.

Cast: As Julia, the play's center and narrator, Rivka Borek brings an active emotional engagement to her scenes, a pulsing need to receive love from her father, but a stubborn refusal to keep asking after so many rebuffs. Similarly, J. Anthony Crane, as her charismatic uncle Barry, movingly navigates through non-linear flashbacks the contrast of the confident and emotionally intelligent member of the family with the younger brother as equally desperate for the approval of his big brother Larry. But the real gem of this cast is Barbara Broughton as Momma Rose, full of warmth, fortitude, humor, and pride as she reflects on where she came from and who came after her. When she enters a scene you find yourself breathing a little easier, because Momma Rose is here to take care of you. She's even got some kugel.

Design: An-Lin Dauber's scenic design effectively conveys the liminal space of an airport lounge: a wall of windows looking out to a fuzzy sky (good color palate from lighting designer Carolyn Wong), two doorways leading to a void of blackness, three nondescript chairs. Sam Kaseta's sound design is atmospheric without being intrusive, reminding us how public so many of these family encounters are, and that at any moment an overhead speaker could cue someone's ability to escape the conversation. Stefanie Genda's costume design is perhaps most effective when costuming the women (Julia's grungy layers, Momma Rose's granny dresses, and Maxine's chic structured aesthetic).


Running: Now playing at Jeffrey and Paul Gural Theatre at the A.R.T./New York Theatres (Boomerang Theatre Company) - Opening: May 13, 2022. Closing: May 29, 2022.
Category: play
Length: 2 hours, 10 minutes, including intermission.

Creative Team

Playwright: Adam Kraar
Music: Faye Chiao
Director: Tasha Gordon-Solmon
Designers: An-Lin Dauber (Set), Stefanie Genda (Costume), Carolyn Wong (Lighting), Sam Kaseta (Sound), Deb Gauoette (Props Master).
Cast: Ezra Barnes, Rivka Borek, Barbara Broughton, Michelle Liu Coughlin, J. Anthony Crane, Chris Thorn.

Ezra Barnes, J. Anthony Crane, Barbara Broughton, and Rivka Borek as 
Lawrence Karpovsky, Barry Karpovsky, Great Momma Rose, and Julia
Karpovsky. Photo by Isaiah Tanenbaum Theatrical Photography.

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