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February 28, 1987|DAN SULLIVAN | Times Theater Critic

Steven Berkoff's "Kvetch" has opened Off Broadway to somewhat kvetchy reviews.

A couple of the critics were knocked out by Berkoff's comedy of Jewish guilt at the Westside Arts Theatre. (The original production is still running strong at the Odyssey Theater in Los Angeles.)

Robert Feldberg of the Bergen, N.J., Record found the show "a darkly hilarious exploration of the horrible, hysterical world of Angst ," and Eleanor Lester of the Jewish Weekly called it both "gut-wrenching" and "side-splitting."

But Howard Kissell of the New York Daily News found it head-splitting. "If you are a whiner, this is the show for you," Kissell wrote. "The lines are shouted, belched, groaned or whined. If (it) had not been acted by Jews, it would be called anti-Semitic."

The New York Post's Marilyn Stasio admired the sharp edge of Berkoff's writing and direction, but thought the piece lacked humanity. "(It) is a black comedy about the secret obsessive anxieties that make monsters of us all," she wrote. "Despite expert performances, incisive writing and bravura theatrical style, it lacks a comic soul. It seethes with contempt."

The New York Times' Mel Gussow, who hated Berkoff's "Greek" in 1983 (he got in another dig about that), almost had a good time at "Kvetch."

"For a time, 'Kvetch' is amusing, provoking the audience to nervous laughter of recognition as the author assails the complacency in an American Jewish family. Then Mr. Berkoff reaches for a plot. What could have been a brief sketch, followed by other sketches on related themes, tries--and fails--to become a full play. . . . The comedy hovers and settles down in sitcom land. The bite becomes blunt rather than ferocious. . . .

"As director, Mr. Berkoff has marshaled his actors, some of whom were in the play during its long Los Angeles engagement, into a unified comic-strip style performance. . . . The performances, especially that of Kurt Fuller, have a pungency, but the play is not, as intended, a kvetch from the heart."

We saw a preview of Berkoff's comedy at the Westside Arts Theatre and can report that the audience laughed in the same places as in Los Angeles. But whoever proofread the program should go stand in the corner. "Originally produced by the Odessey Theatre in Los Angeles, Calif." Oy!

"Roza"--Harold Prince's Broadway-bound musical, coming to the Taper April 29--got some nice reviews in December at its first stop, Baltimore's Center Stage. It also got some of the other kind.

The show is based on the same Romain Gary novel that sired the film, "Madame Rosa," in which a punched-out streetwalker (Simone Signoret in the movie, Georgia Brown here) raises a 12-year-old boy.

Variety found the show "an invigorating musical experience" and the Baltimore Evening Sun's Lou Cedrone praised Gilbert Becaud's score ("immediately likable, instantly recognizable").

But Hap Erstein of the Washington Times found the show "clumsily manipulative," and David Richards of the Washington Post thought it "a bad idea, gone worse." William B. Collins of the Philadelphia Inquirer wasn't too impressed either, but he did like Georgia Brown ("triumphantly frowzy . . . sounds like several varieties of Edith Piaf").

We'll see.

Kinichi Hagimoto is Japan's favorite comic--not that Japan has all that many of them. Hagimoto told Margaret Scherf of the Associated Press Tokyo bureau that his people don't have an enormous sense of humor, especially not the older generation.

Young people, however, crack up for Hagimoto's routines. He gave Scherf a sample:

"A school kid comes home and complains to his mother, 'The only thing I find in my lunch box is just rice and pickles. Can't you do something about this?' His mother says, 'Well, I'm always careful not to place the pickle in the same position.' "

Probably you'd have to hear it in Japanese.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK--Jack O'Brien, artistic director of San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, in the "Old Globe Herald":

"The arts in this country are not yet truly endowed, truly protected. They exist as strange and rare guests in communities like ours, as endangered a species as any that exists in the environs of our neighbor, the zoo."

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