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The Karpovsky Variations

A new memory play by Adam Kraar about a dysfunctional family of driven people and the music that inspired them.

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J. Anthony Crane as Barry, Chris Thorn as Harold, Barbara Broughton as Great Momma Rose, Rivka Borek as Julia and Ezra Barnes as Lawrence, in a scene from Adam Kraar’s “The Karpovsky Variations” at the Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre at the A.R.T./New York Theatres (Photo credit: Isaiah Tanenbaum Theatrical Photography)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Adam Kraar’s new drama, The Karpovsky Variations, is a memory play about a dysfunctional family of driven people and the music that inspired them.   Unfortunately, in its current form it is both confused and confusing. Without a family tree, it is difficult to keep straight all of the names of characters both seen and mentioned. Director Tasha Gordon-Solmon has eliminated almost all of the scenic elements described in the script which does not make it any easier to follow. There is a fascinating story hidden in this material but it hasn’t been allowed to surface yet.

The play is narrated by Julia Karpovsky, a musician, in her early 30’s, on April 8, 2006, the day after her father Lawrence has died suddenly. Described as a family of wanderers, the play is mainly set in Delta’s Admiral Lounges in various airports which seem to be the only places the family members meet on their way to their many business affairs. Julia who grew up in many different places in Asia as her father was a journalist for an international magazine attempts to put together the story of her relatives as well as find herself, her father and his brothers being Type A personalities who are always on the go. The middle brother Harold is an optometrist in Chicago while youngest brother Barry works for an international Jewish charity in Manhattan. Another character we meet is great-grandmother Rose who came to the United States from Cracow, Poland, when she was quite young.

Rivka Borek as Julia and Ezra Barnes as her father Lawrence in a scene from Adam Kraar’s “The Karpovsky Variations” at the Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre at the A.R.T./New York Theatres (Photo credit: Isaiah Tanenbaum Theatrical Photography)

The Karpovsky Variations seems to pull in various directions over a 20 year period: Lawrence whose hobby is playing the clarinet is not pleased when Julia takes it up as more than an avocation. Lawrence divorces her mother, the free spirited Elaine who we never get to meet,  when Julia is about 15, and he marries Maxine, an Asian-American woman who appears to separate him from the rest of his family. Great Momma Rose asks Julia to find the Jewish clarinet melody that she heard in Poland as a child. Uncle Barry falls in love with the alto from the Starlight Lounge and divorces his wife Barbara in order to marry her. Problems arise when Maxine wants to cremate Lawrence’s body which is frowned upon by the Jewish religion. All this appears to come out in passing at the airport which is where the Karpovskys encounter each other on the way to catch their next plane.

One of the problems with following the play is the number of offstage characters referred to: Elaine, Janet, Barbara, Suzie, Marilyn, Dara, and Angie. Great Momma Rose seems to be only in the play to set Julia on the quest for the Jewish clarinet sound that she heard as a child. As the airport set never changes, it is difficult to know where we are at any given point. A casual reference to Houston is confusing as Barry appears to live in New York. (Where is the boarding school that Julia is headed for?) When Harold is suddenly referred to as Harry this is too close to Barry for comfort and gets confusing. Except for the fact that Lawrence is disappointed with Julia, we never really know why they stop seeing each other for years. While Julia is the narrator telling her own story, the second act seems to switch and show us events from Uncle Barry’s point of view for part of the time.

Rivka Borek as Julia and Chris Thorn as Uncle Harold in a scene from Adam Kraar’s “The Karpovsky Variations” at the Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre at the A.R.T./New York Theatres (Photo credit: Isaiah Tanenbaum Theatrical Photography)

The actors do well with what they are given but the characterizations are rather thin, telling us little about each of them. Ezra Barnes’ Lawrence Karpovsky worries that he will lose his job if he does not get the next scoop. Chris Thorn’s Uncle Harold is addicted to flying his Cessna plane. J. Anthony Crane’s Uncle Barry worries about the loss of Jewish traditions in the family. Except for their divorces and remarriages, we don’t learn much more about the men. Barbara Broughton’s Great Momma Rose kvetches about never seeing her grandsons when she encounters them. And Rivka Borek’s Julia who tells the story seems to have a series of nervous breakdowns on her way to her 30’s trying to find herself.

An-Lin Dauber’s bland set with its blank wall and three chairs allows for easy transitions but makes it difficult to locate where the characters are at any given moment. So too the costumes by Stefanie Genda which hardly ever change fail to denote the different time periods from 1982 to 2006, particularly unsuitable for the heroine who matures from a child to an adult woman but does not seem to age. Best is the sound design by Sam Kaseta which makes the airports real. Carolyn Wong’s lighting does help to denote the shifts in time.

Ezra Barnes as Lawrence, J. Anthony Crane as Barry, Barbara Broughton as Great Momma Rose and Rivka Borek as Julia in a scene from Adam Kraar’s “The Karpovsky Variations” at the Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre at the A.R.T./New York Theatres (Photo credit: Isaiah Tanenbaum Theatrical Photography)

Adam Kraar’s The Karpovsky Variations is an interesting attempt to bring four generations of a family to life. Unfortunately, he has not solved the problem of the many shifts in time backwards and forwards in the heroine’s life. While anecdotal hints are dropped that might make the family unique, they are usually not picked up on and we learn too little about the various relatives. The sketchy character relationships need to be filled out to make this a satisfying family drama.

The Karpovsky Variations (through May 29, 2022)

The Boomerang Theatre Company

Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre at the A.R.T./New York Theatres, 502 W. 53rd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, visit http://www.ourshow/thekarpovskyvariations

Running time: two hours and five minutes including one intermission

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Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (839 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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