Kvetch

Steven Berkoff
King's Head Theatre
(2011)

Kvetch publicity image

Being neurotic, in a very unhealthy way, is pretty fun. You get to be loud, extravagant, melodramatic even, if only inside your head. Kvetch brings out brilliantly the internal theatrics of the socially insecure, creating a tense and toxic atmosphere while being hysterically funny. It's a brilliant piece of theatre, or is until the second half.

Kvetch starts out with a dinner party where no one's happy to be there. There's a husband who invited a work colleague over and instantly regretted doing so, a wife giving herself an ulcer about the food and the fact that her husband didn't call to warn her about the guest earlier, the guest himself who's despairingly single and insecure and the mother-in-law who's eternally disapproving and creating a nasty smell in the corner.

What creates the tension and the angst, aside from the quintessential Jewishness on display, is that no one knows how to talk to each other. Every line of conversation is intercut with long internal monologues that freeze the action and have the speaker consider in minute detail their own inadequacy and how they should respond. It's excruciating to see as well as very true to life's all too polite and all too theatrical situations.

These moments are also a real pleasure because they are when the characters get physical, jumping out and moving around the stage, standing on the table or shouting into each others' impassive faces. These loud theatrics and larger than life staging, each character having a painted-on mask that fixes their particular emotion, fit perfectly and allow the audience to both feel for the characters, while laughing at them.

This entire dinner scene is a tight, taught and perfectly written and acted, containing in a little microcosm the characters' petty hopes and motivations. Unfortunately, Kvetch doesn't end here.

What follows is a confusing, not altogether unsuccessful second half. Here we're introduced to a new character, George, a fat and groping Jewish shopkeeper, and start to explore the characters' lives away from the dinner table.

This half's main problem is that it suffers greatly in comparison to the first, to the extent that it feels tacked on and even difficult to judge on its own merits. The dinner scene had a sharp focus and a clear direction; here is a cluster of scenes following a loose narrative thread.

So while the dinner scene held each character in balance, giving equal credence and interest to each, the second half is mainly about the husband, a change which requires a different kind of character based theatre than the intensely intersocial kind seen before, a kind of theatre that doesn't fit the very physical theatrical style previously developed.

More problematic still, the second half explores exactly the same issues and themes as the first, social anxiety and how to find a place in the world, but more laboriously and without the invigorating absurdist tint. In short, the second half fails to justify itself.

This is a particular shame because not only does it put a damper on the (excellent) first half, but also because there's a lot of imaginative and daring staging later on that was hinted at but not possible within the dinner scene. Plus, some of the funniest moments are towards the end.

Kvetch is a pleasure, a frantic, intense and hilarious play that has a lot of fun while maintaining a rewarding level of depth, and keeping an almost unbearably tense atmosphere. Unfortunately, it's unable to sustain the near perfect first half, but by the point it starts to falter, it's already justified itself.

Reviewer: Tobias Chapple