The long, nearly concave expanse of David Proval’s bent back, along with stiff joints and an off-kilter stance, uncannily describe what it’s like to spend years lugging heavy seltzer bottles up long flights of New York tenement stairs. Proval plays Seymour Allan Cohen, the “Seltzer Man” of Richard Krevolin’s one-man play, who knows the step count in each musty building on his delivery route. Proval’s scratchy eyebrows, his scurrying highs and bellowing lows, embody the working-class New Yorker we don’t hear much about anymore — the solitary pre-yuppie Keinholz figure misshapen by human compression.
At night, Seymour comes home to his muggy Delancey Street apartment to write poems. His devotion to Miss Smith and Miss Corona causes, he tells us, serious annoyance to “my broad Shirley,” whom he’s ostensibly trying to elude. The stall of writer’s block drives him to the icebox (you wouldn’t call it a refrigerator here in Brian Gale’s fine set), where he pulls out serial bottles of Bud and fills us in on the details of a miserable life. A brutal, whoremongering father. A compulsive gambler of a mother. A suffocating boyhood as a Yeshiva Jew.
Fear and anger are buried so deep that his fantasy life erupts in a series of short stories about Yankel Schwartz, the Fighting Jew.
The pathos of thwarted dreams is nothing new to the theater — it’s one of Chekhov’s most luminous themes. Playwright Krevolin wants to go that one better by showing poor Sy as someone who gets what he deserves. For example, what numbskull kid shouldn’t expect to be beaten up after stepping out on a Catholic school playground and yelling, “The Virgin Mary is God’s whore!”? The incident enters Sy’s litany of grievances forever afterward.
If Sy hates the sound of the phone ringing while he’s writing, why doesn’t he just take it off the hook? Maybe, we eventually understand, he really enjoys it. And after he’s made a show of cozying up to Shirley, why does he stand her up to write poems when he should be making the date? Is it because he can only function when he dumps his self-punishment on someone else? Is this a comment on serial perversity, self-destruction and repression handed down and parceled out?
“Seltzer Man” is supposed to be set in the late ’60s, but in references to “my fetid armpits” and “the amber glow of God’s punim” in a bottle of beer, it has the feel of the ’50s at its most pretentiously literary. And Krevolin has made the odd choice of revealing Sy as a truly dreadful poet. Without a gift, nothing is lost, no arc rises and falls. Nothing has been thwarted. Where’s the pathos there?
Lisa James’ loose direction leaves Proval (Richie Aprile on HBO’s “The Sopranos”) to wander all over the place, when more discipline might have compacted angry power into Sy’s torment.