Euan Morton and Alfred Molina in Howard Katz
(© Joan Marcus)
Euan Morton and Alfred Molina in Howard Katz
(© Joan Marcus)
The last time Alfred Molina was on a Manhattan stage, he was the tradition-promoting Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, spending much time talking and singing to God. Now, Molina is back on the boards in the Roundabout Theatre's production of Patrick Marber's 2001 drama Howard Katz -- and, guess what, he's still engaging God. What the engaging Molina can't do, however, is to make Marber's script spin mesmerizingly.

Curiously enough, in tackling the role of Howard, a British Jew, Molina is seemingly playing Tevye's great-grandson, a man who is suffering the rootlessness Tevye experienced once he was evicted from Anatevka and forced to wander continents. In Marber's surprisingly tentative hands, Howard is someone so estranged from a God who won't answer his prayer that he believes he's lost his soul.

He's also thinking about taking his own life. We're immediately introduced to the forlorn Howard sleeping on a bench underneath a few desolate London arches. (Scott Pask designed the gloomy let's-all-slit-our-wrists-instantly set onto which various pieces of furniture glide.) Accosted by an ultimately benevolent mugger (Euan Morton), Howard gladly surrenders his wallet and watch -- all the better to contemplate what form his suicide should take.

Quickly, Marber flashes back to many months earlier, when the conflicted hero's life was rapidly beginning to unravel. First, Howard, an abrasive agent, is fired by shades-wearing client Ricky Barnes (Morton again). Then, he has a few pointed discussions with wife Jess (Jessica Hecht) that lead to a separation from her and their cute son Ollie (Patrick Henney). From then on, it's downhill on a slippery slope for the resentful shlemiel. He has major disagreements with his adulterous barber father Jo (Alvin Epstein) and spiteful brother Bern (Max Baker). He's later given his walking papers at the agency by lubricious superiors Greg and Tina (Baker and Hecht), and eventually, he's even dissed by a hooker (Charlotte Parry) at a fleabag hotel, among other travails, before he winds up back on that bench.

Because Marber kicks off his grim piece by telling the audience everything they're about to see in flashback, patrons are tapping their toes before long waiting for him to catch up with them. As a result, it doesn't matter how disturbingly specific are the details he provides -- and some of them have the specificity and power of his best work. While Marber's desire to examine the life of spiritually empty contemporary men is quite honorable -- the kind of fierce endeavor he's undertaken successfully in Dealer's Choice and Closer -- he's chosen the wrong attack and perhaps too uninteresting a protagonist. Moreover, the ending he appends to the tale is not only way late but unconvincing.

Fortunately, Molina easily fills every one of Howard's many dimensions. He shifts from rage to befuddlement in seconds. Howard, though lost as to how to right himself, isn't an entirely unredeemable man, and Molina knows how to render the character repugnant one moment and sympathetic the next -- especially when encouraging Bern to show a little loyalty towards an old barber-shop retainer (Edward Hajj). Further, the tall and hefty Molina uses his body expertly to portray by turns the vindictive, combative bully and lumbering fool.

Director Doug Hughes puts the cast through its fast-paced paces -- the show runs barely 90 minutes -- with his usual polish. Those who come off best are Baker and Morton; in part, it's because they're English and don't have to struggle with accents. The American actors -- despite skills in other areas -- do struggle, especially Jessica Hecht and Elizabeth Franz (who doubles as Howard's mother and a fellow casino denizen). Dialect coach Gillian Lane-Plescia should have been more exacting.

Marber's more recent plays, After Miss Julie and Don Juan in Soho (both seen at London's Almeida), and his screenplay for Notes on a Scandal have him back at the top of his galvanizing form. It's good to know that Howard Katz is merely a temporary lapse.