‘Kvetch’ is humorous North American slang derived from the Yiddish meaning complain or moan, used as either a verb or a noun. In Steven Berkoff’s satirical comedy, premiered in Los Angeles in 1986 and subtitled ‘An American Play about Anxiety’, the word refers both to the characters whining about other people and to the neuroses nagging away inside them.
Berkoff’s play is really a series of brilliant sketches/kvetches which doesn’t evolve satisfactorily as a narrative. There are some very funny moments of social embarrassment when Jewish textile salesman Frank brings back his recently separated colleague Hal for dinner at his home, with his downtrodden, sexually dissatisfied wife Donna and dyspeptic Russian mother-in-law. But later developments of an adulterous affair and gay coming out fail to convince.
The technique Berkoff uses ingeniously is to alternate awkwardly restrained interaction between the characters with uninhibited monologues spoken to the audience, when the speakers let rip with what’s really on their minds while the others freeze. This series of comic external/internal contrasts includes the lonely singleton idealizing family life, while the married couple lust after freedom without responsibility. The hilarity reaches a climax in bed when we see Frank and Donna having sex while each fantasizing about other partners.
This is Not an Exit’s production, directed and designed by Julio Maria Martino, captures well the Berkovian exuberant physicality of the work. The scenes are interlaced with sounds of babbling voices and tooting traffic emphasizing urban hypertension, while a tablecloth-covered dinner table cleverly turns into a sheeted bed, with heads popping through trapdoors when summoned by imagination. Dickie Beau’s make-up of worry frowns, dark eye shadow and downturned mouths gives the cast a droll grotesqueness.
Josh Cole’s Frank is perpetually on edge, labouring a joke to death, while Dagmar Döring’s unconfident Donna worries about her cooking and her conversation. In the middle Beau’s Hal tries to suppress panic attacks with forced bonhomie. Melissa Woodbridge plays the interfering mother-in-law with grouchy gusto and Christopher Adlington is the materialistic, greedy George, Frank’s loathed client and Donna’s potential lover.
We may laugh at this bunch of losers, but all the way through Kvetch runs an undercurrent of pathos, with Berkoff suggesting that these sad people would be happier if they released their subconscious desires and frustrations.