Steven Berkoff’s rarely revived comedy explores anxiety, that modern urban neurosis. It’s a satirical portrait of a Jewish American family with excessively acidic personal politics. Kvetch showcases its characters’ worse and most violent of frustrations in a constant dialogue between their internal lives and social environments.
Julio Maria Martino’s adaptation is loyal to the elements that make Berkoff such an enfant terrible of postmodern theatre: the expressionistic and visceral physical language, the fragmented narratives and aggressive characters. But though this adaptation promises to be a fearless exploration of personal taboos, it only manages to present the bluntly confrontational and slightly outdated misery of a series of unpleasant characters.
Five dissatisfied characters with various neuroses are gathered around a dinner table. Donna (Dagmar Doring), is a repressed housewife who doubts her own existence, her husband Frank (Josh Cole), is a mediocre salesman with a hatred for his family, his mother in law (Melissa Woodbrige), is a sour old lady, and Hal (Dickie Beau), is a despairing single man. Let’s not forget George (Christopher Adlington), who has a track record of divorces and an enormous beer belly. What brings these characters together is an insurmountable gap between their life expectations, their anxious disgust and the reality of their situation.
Dramatically this gap is weakly articulated. Martino’s direction focuses so much on presenting the characters as symbols of their individual frustrations that both the internal and the external are synonymous in tone. This over-use of expressionism clashes with rather than enhancing Berkoff’s text, which relies on physical energy and dramatic economy. Each character sports a painted-on mask (excellent make-up design courtesy of Beau), and the marrying of this with superfluous movement means we’re never allowed a way into the characters. This use of masks capitalizes on the text’s humour but undercuts the potency of the dramaturgy. We never see them as real people, so their frustrations remain generic. Kvetch becomes a portrait of a theatrical device – the aside – rather than an exploration of where this urban fear comes from.
Yet the production is not without its engaging moments, particularly in the first half. Beau’s performance as Hal certainly raises the bar, and Doring and Cole bring to the table some viscerally theatrical confrontations. The actors embody their anxieties with precision and humour, yet unfortunately the bitter encounters with both themselves and the people around them remain superficial. There’s a lot of labour in the production, yet this labour lacks dramatic scope.
The relentless internal monologues and the experiencing of paranoia in all its incarnations have a neutralizing effect. With little character transformation, all the in-yer-face theatre amounts to little and feels rather outdated. Has it not become a cultural cliché to portray American suburbia as an anaesthetic? The characters embody a bitterness that’s no novelty to a contemporary audience. In taking this approach to the material, Martino removes much of its potential for controversy.