The story that seems to be struggling to emerge from “The Karpovsky Variations” concerns Julia Karpovsky, an American Jew who spent her childhood abroad and is trying to connect with her family and their traditions…or, more specifically, with her emotionally distant father. She is also an aspiring musician— like her father and grandfather before her — who is trying to find her sound. There is some suggestion that her two efforts are related. Or perhaps in conflict.
But playwright Adam Kraar is not content to focus on Julia in “The Karpovsky Variations.” The play, which is being given a minimalist production with an uneven cast at A.R.T./New York through May 29, features just as many scenes about Larry, Harry and Barry.
That’s Lawrence, as he prefers to be called — Julia’s father, an international journalist — and his two younger brothers: Harold, an optometrist who’s taken up flying as a hobby, and the youngest, Barry, who runs an international Jewish charity. They are busy travelers, who only seem able to meet one another, and Julia, in airports, with little time before their flights (which, Julia, who acts as the narrator, finds apt: They are descended from “a whole tribe of wandering Jewish minstrels.” ) Over the years, Julia tells us about (and we witness) various life events (marriages and divorces), crises and tragedies that involve the brothers. But it’s as if the playwright is also a busy traveler, with little time to spend on one scene before catching the next. Great Mama Rose, the brothers’ grandmother, also gets some scenes (although perhaps as just a memory; she might be long dead), as does Maxine, Lawrence’s second wife, who arrives late in the play. All of these scenes are not necessarily out of chronological order. There are many flashbacks going back some two decades, but the main action takes place in 2006, shortly after Lawrence dies. The scenes are not entirely disconnected (It’s all in the family after all.) But the choice of scenes too often feels arbitrary.
There are hints that “The Karpovsky Variations” is structured like a piece of music (not least its title) and the most engaging scenes are those in which either Julia, or her father, play the clarinet. There are also some memorable lines:
“Are you happy?” Barry asks Lawrence at one point. “Are you happy with Maxine? “
“Barry, people make themselves very unhappy, chasing after ‘happiness.’ I don’t think that’s what life is about.”
At another point, Julia also waxes philosophical. “For me, life is the sound of a voice,” she says. “Or the breath in a clarinet.”
It’s because of such lines that, while I cannot recommend the current production of “The Karpovsky Variations,” I’m hoping the playwright will come up with a new variation of it.
The Karpovsky Variations
Boomerang Theater Company at A.R.T./New York Theatres through May 29
Running time: Two hours, including one intermission
Written by Adam Kraar
Directed by Tasha Gordon-Solman
Scenic design by An-Lin Dauber, costume design by Stefanie Genda, and lighting design by Carolyn Wong. Sam Kaseta is the sound designer, Faye Chiao is the composer and Deb Gauoette is the props master.
Cast: Ezra Barnes as Lawrence , Rivka Borek as Julia, Barbara Broughton as Great Momma Rose, Michelle Liu Coughlin as Maxine , Tony Crane as Barry and Chris Thorn as Harold
Photographs by Isaiah Tanenbaum