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Stage Review : A 'Kvetch' Worth Listening To

March 18, 1986|SYLVIE DRAKE | Times Theater Writer

Early in his play "Kvetch," Steven Berkoff defines its title as "anything that tends to change the control one ordinarily has over one's body and emotions."

In a more popular and less specific sense, it is a Yiddish word that has transcended other languages to broadly signify "to grumble" or "to complain." In the Berkoff piece, which opened Saturday at the Odyssey III, it takes on both meanings--with fiercely funny and sardonic results.

Berkoff, who gave us the unforgettable "Greek" a few years ago (also a Berkovian "Agamemnon" for the Olympic Arts Festival and an appropriately decadent "Decadence" before that) is right in stride with "Kvetch."

Forgetting his native East London but sticking to his unmatched talent for direct address, Berkoff this time scratches his Jewish roots and brings forth a compulsively manic version of his own "Strange Interlude"--strange, funny, fetid and flamboyant indeed.

The opening image is almost identical to "Greek's": Two men and two women sitting at a rectangular table, staring out at the audience. They are salesman Frank (Kurt Fuller), Frank's wife Donna (Laura Esterman), Frank's monster mother-in-law (Marcia Mohr) and Frank's buddy from work, Hal (Mitch Kreindel).

As they begin to talk--to us and to one another--we get the picture.

Hal is divorced and alternately panicked and depressed about it; Frank is fed up with his marriage and his mother-in-law, who belches and breaks wind and emits platitudes with unstoppable regularity; Donna is fed up with Frank, whose selfishness and sexual distance drive her up the wall. All are crazed with insecurities.

What transpires? In a moment of uncharacteristic largesse, Frank invites Hal home for dinner--to meet the wife, meet the family--and immediately regrets this folly. Hal declines, to Frank's relief, then accepts, to Frank's despair.

Act I is the excruciating inner hysteria and strained outer small talk of the dinner conversation, along with the staggering revelations they serve up. In Act II, we wander further afield. We meet George, a client of Frank's (Kenneth Tigar) and discover more things we had not suspected (and won't reveal) about Frank and Hal and Donna and George.

Is this a play? You bet. It takes Berkoff's special genius with language to pull it off, but pull it off he does, dazzlingly, in a witty, brutally frank satirical display of what we say as opposed to what we'd really like to say, and who we present ourselves to be as against who we are deep down inside.

It is a theater of social minutiae and internal combustion--dedicated (in the program) "to the afraid," a group Berkoff takes care to define at length and which includes everybody. It is about chaos, the ludicrous pain of living, of doing such elementary things as carrying on a conversation, let alone maintaining a relationship.

The closing image (another thing we won't reveal) leaves no doubt that the illusions we relentlessly pursue in life, life just as relentlessly shoots down. There is a reason for the single large painting on the back wall of a crowded freeway some 20 lanes wide leading absolutely nowhere (Don Llewellyn did the apt and simple set).

Berkoff's brilliance lies in a natural theatricality aided and abetted by his genius with words. He constructs moments like precision machinery that, once set in motion, drives home his points with a dark and furious passion for the comical truths that underlie, tease and torment our daily lives.

He is also an exemplary director, with an exceptional gift for timing that he is able to convey to his sharply selected actors.

All are astonishing--from the fast-talking, bewildered Fuller, to the hysterical Kreindel (funny/hysterical and crazy/hysterical), insidious Tigar, nervous-wreck Esterman and nudnick Mohr. All abundantly deserve the extended applause they received Saturday.

Performances at 12111 Ohio St. (near Bundy) in West Los Angeles run Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m., with matinees March 30 and April 13 at 3 p.m. They end April 20, though not if we can help it (213-826-1626).

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