Ethnic Theater - Jewish
"Klonsky & Schwartz"
Ensemble Studio Theatre, Manhattan
Every literate person has heard of Delmore Schwartz. Delmore? “My mother named me after an apartment house. She thought it sounded goyish,” Schwartz points out in a new off-Broadway play called “Klonsky and Schwartz.”
Delmore Schwartz, son of Romanian-Jewish immigrants, came to prominence in the ‘30s, winning recognition with prestigious awards. From the time he won the Bowdoin Prizer in the Humanities for his essay “Poetry as Imitation,” and moving on to the short story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” his career arced upward. Ultimately he would take his place as one of America’s top contemporary poets.
But who has heard of Milton Klonsky? Certainly not in the textbooks or annals of literature. At best, and after considerable research, one finds that he was a “minor poet,” gaining recognition more by association than by achievement. This association was enough to inspire playwright Romulus Linney, who has written this provocative piece about the love-hate relationship of Klonsky and Schwartz. The resulting two-man show is now playing off-Broadway at the Ensemble Studio Theatre. Linney has succeeded remarkably in interweaving Schwartz’s moving poetry with his own well-matched lines.
Klonsky, it seems, was Schwartz’s life-long partner and protégé, and though he longed to be Schwartz’s equal, he never made it into the major ranks. Schwartz, on the other hand, was a brilliant poet, even while he wrestled with drugs, alcohol, and mental illness. Klonsky had his own problems—among them promiscuity and writer’s block. In point of fact, each had his own dybbuk (at one point, a rabbi—in Klonskhy’s dream--suggests that each is the other’s dybbuk).
For Schwartz, voices, images, and the imaginary figure of Nelson Rockefeller would come to him unbidden. He would keep insisting that Rockefeller had stolen his (Schwartz’s) wife! These delusions would result in unprovoked attacks on others, which would inevitably land him in Bellevue Hospital. Was this the result of drugs, alcohol, or mental instability? Hard to say which precipitated the other. As for Klonsky, the more clear-headed but less creative one of the duo, his great bitterness and sense of failure stemmed from his own inadequacies as a writer. This is not a linear play with a developing plot, but, rather, a character study. No, make that a two-character study. No, make that a study of a remarkable relationship.
In this dance of death, as played out on the EST stage, actors William Wise (Schwartz) and Chris Ceraso (Klonsky) give brilliant performances. Their battles move from the verbal to the physical, as they grapple with their own demons and with each other. The very bulky Wise and the wiry little Ceraso are amazingly well suited to each other, fitted together like pieces of a puzzle and complementing each other like partners in a ballet. The piece rises and drops, gains in intensity, and fades back, always moving back and forth in time.
In all, a fascinating little gem, enough to send one back to the poetry books.
-- Irene Backalenick
December 10, 2005