When his bitterly savage comedy "Kvetch" premiered in Los Angeles in 1986, playwright Steven Berkoff observed rather nakedly that he wrote it "as an expression of my neurotic terror. It comes from the bottom drawer of my being."
For those unacquainted with Berkoff's work, this is a warning: Be prepared to view his--and possibly your--inner demons.
"Kvetch" is ostensibly about an American Jewish family--Frank; his wife, Donna; and her mother--and Frank's work associates. A surface reading may suggest that this is Berkoff's take on his own Jewishness; when it opened in New York after its hit L.A. run, many critics there read only that surface, insisting that "Kvetch" would have been roundly condemned as anti-Semitic had it been written by a non-Jew. Which is beside the point: Berkoff is carrying on a long tradition in Jewish theater of self-mocking, with Woody Allen as Berkoff's lighter American counterpart.
Mostly, "Kvetch," at Actors' Playhouse in Long Beach through Sunday, is the ideal introduction to Berkoff's obsession: how man lives with a running debate between id and ego, and how the id is probably much better armed for the kill.
That may be why--despite the Los Angeles Jewish Theatre Company's current staging, which emphasizes things Jewish--director Giovanna Fusco cast WASPy looking Morgan Christopher as king kvetch Frank.
Having this Frank at the dinner table trying a friendly face while complaining in ever-darkening detail--about what he'd really like to do to Donna, or the mom-in-law (Jo Black-Jacob), or the co-worker dinner guest--is an attempt to universalize beyond the Yiddish phrases, to get at Berkoff's deeper strategy.
Would that it worked.
Christopher is not the powerhouse required for the role (a titanic actor himself, Berkoff writes for powerful actors), and his speeches and delivery remain at the level of a whine. In a way, Christopher's performance suffers from the same surface reading as that of those New York critics; we share with him the play's naughty pleasure in telling the gaseous mother-in-law what cliff to jump off, but we miss Frank's pained inner id.
It's left to the rest of the actors to go to the bottom drawers of their beings, but the best we get is occasionally sharp ironic timing from Jack Thomas as Hal, whose sneaky twist of manner Berkoff probably would like. Thomas shifts with admirable ease from outward civility to inward terror, dread and hatred. (The whole play's comedy is about these shifts.)
Lorianne Hill also reaches moments of id-like hilarity when her Donna lets us in on her most intense wet dreams (parents: Leave the kids at home).
But moments aren't enough. Without the curdling fear underneath, and the speedy, high-energy staging Berkoff plays demand, this "Kvetch" doesn't attack us where we live--deep down inside, where the real battles are waged.
* "Kvetch," Actors' Playhouse, 1409 E. 4th St., Long Beach. Saturday, 4 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. Ends Sunday. $16. (562) 590-9396. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.
Morgan Christopher: Frank
Lorianne Hill: Donna
Jack Thomas: Hal
Jo Black-Jacob: Mother-in-Law
David Rousseve: George
A Los Angeles Jewish Theatre production of Steven Berkoff's comedy. Directed by Giovanna Fusco. Set and lights: Jorge Albertella.