During the second act of “Fellow Traveler,” actress Mimi Cozzens collapsed and fainted onstage, inciting horrified concern from a shocked audience. Cozzens (star of the recent “After the Fall”), had no memory of the incident upon awakening, but she rallied heroically and insisted on finishing her performance. Oddly enough, worry about her well-being made it all too clear how little empathy the show’s fictional protagonist elicited by comparison. Although John Herman Shaner’s drama has many dynamic moments, it concentrates on a maddeningly unpleasant central character. Harold Gould, one of theater’s warmest actors, is called upon to humanize a man who constantly criticizes and abuses those closest to him.
Gould often gives emotional shading to the non-stop nastiness, but eventually, his character’s viciousness becomes so repetitive that it sabotages an inevitable bid for sympathy.
He plays Arnold, TV writer and former communist who can’t come to grips with the evils of Stalin and downfall of his youthful dreams. Lost idealism (cleverly spelled out by set designer Gary Wissman’s three huge red squares on the wall against a black background), has turned him into a self-pitying monster. Arnold’s friend and former writing partner David (Michael Kagan) comes to visit with his nubile, new age bride Evening Star (Molly Weber), and when David begs his ex-collaborator to hire him on a sitcom so he can earn enough for permanent medical coverage, Arnold warns, “You’re going to have to grovel for this medical insurance.”
Grovel is a mild word for the hell Arnold puts David through, lambasting him for leaving their partnership, for marrying a young girl “so you could get it up” and for considering the idea of having a child at 59.
In retaliation, David slams Arnold for clinging to his belief in Russia’s communist regime after its horrors were revealed.
Shaner’s narrative is interesting but overplotted, a series of vignettes that seem to end, only to gallop back into gear. From heated political harangues and sexual banter to bashing barbs at the sell-out nature of writing for television, it moves to a frenetic climax that flirts with tragedy and then resolves in playful, implausibly upbeat fashion.
Compounding the difficulty is director Charles Marowitz, who permits the performers to deliver their dialogue with crashing emphasis. By play’s end, you simply expect Gould to implode.
The element that provides balance is a superlative portrayal by Michael Kagan as David. Kagan conveys a multitude of emotions simultaneously — the desire to be a good friend, uneasiness about aging and finding work, political and creative integrity, love for his wife. No matter how verbose his speeches, he gives them genuine feeling, honesty and moral authority.
Molly Weber — sparklingly dressed by Julie Paar in velvet pants and pink flowered top — is appealing, though such lines as “I want to be transparent and candid without strategem and artifice” sound like sentiments of a flaky ’60s flower child.
The relationship between Arnold and wife Providence (Cozzens) has dramatic potential, since it exposes long-hidden resentments and withheld blame. But their final confrontation, intended to point out how a once-workable marriage went wrong, doesn’t ring true. No hint of believable affection is suggested, and emotional clarity is submerged by lengthy examinations of political guilt and tortured creativity.
A welcome, humorous scene features two brash, mindless TV producers (David Barry Gray and Joshua Schulman) patronizing Arnold and outwitting him at his own game. Both are broadly drawn, but they get across one of the author’s main messages: that a true artist who compromises by writing for weekly television is personally and artistically destroyed.