Lookingglass Theatre Company

at the Theatre Building

There’s a Steven Berkoff parody in the recent Jeff Goldblum movie The Tall Guy: We’re at an audition for a hypothetical Berkoff show called England, My England. Looking like a pair of toughs, two actors stomp onstage to confront a third tough. One of the pair kicks over a chair and tells the third, “Fuck off!” The third kicks the chair back and replies, “Fuck off, yerself! And the same goes for yer friend!” Then he kicks over a table, does a vicious little caper, and reiterates, “Fuck off!” To which the friend retorts, “You fuck off!” End of scene.

Berkoff’s work isn’t really as troglodytic as this parody suggests. In fact, if you see the Lookingglass Theatre production of West, you’ll find Berkoff can be pretty witty and erudite. West is written in what the Lookingglass press release calls “Shakespeak”: a sophisticated mix of Shakespearean diction and 60s London street talk, yielding a half ludicrous, half marvelous poetry that resonates with the ambiences of all its sources. When some gang members, for instance, tell their young leader, Mike, about their encounter with a warlike “geezer/all armed . . . his coat stitched and embellished with fine latticework of studs,” we find ourselves flashing on the speech in act one of Hamlet, where Horatio describes his encounter with the dead king’s ghost. And when the gang members go on to recount that same geezer’s horrid aspect and violent ways, we’re reminded of the bit in Macbeth where a Scottish captain reports Macbeth’s valor against a bunch of invading Norwegians. Shakespeak makes West silly with anachronism and rich with reference.

But the basic attitude behind all this silly richness is just exactly as given in the parody. There’s a fuck-off essence to West. Everybody’s angry. Everybody’s cornered. Everybody’s stuck and suspicious and ready to give as good as they reckon they got.

And gang leader Mike is the lightning rod for everybody’s rotten mood. His embittered mom looks to him for vindication. His embittered girlfriend hopes he’ll fill up her vacant life. His embittered pals expect him to organize their bitterness and drain it off into fights and carousing. His colossally embittered dad tries to make him the focus of all his pain.

Not that Mike hasn’t got some fairly colossal bitterness of his own. Berkoff gives him a scary/hilarious long monologue to say about the absolute horror of trying to pursue an honest day’s hustle in the city center. Mike, however, is not looking around for another Mike to assuage or excuse or divert his nasty feelings. A mod Beowulf, a lumpen Hamlet, he’s taken his own feelings and those of the whole community on his shoulders and channeled them into a great, cleansing gesture: He will meet the daunting geezer with the latticework studs in single combat. To the death.

The irony in this, of course, is that the geezer’s got nothing whatever to do with what’s really bothering anybody. Killing or being killed by him isn’t going to alleviate the anomie of modern life. But then nothing Mike could do would achieve that anyway. The point is the gesture: the decision to test oneself against this Grendel–this dark, apparently invincible, possibly inhuman force from another part of town. To say fuck off, and back it up on a mortal scale.

Berkoff’s Shakespeak captures the pathetic grandeur of Mike’s effort. So does this literally kick-ass Lookingglass production, directed by David Catlin. Brilliantly cast with the sad-faced, anything-but-vicious-looking David Schwimmer as Mike, the Lookingglass show subverts the heroic aura even as it gets all sweated up trying to generate it. There are some incredible gymnastic pyrotechnics here, carried off to an industrial-rock beat that says everything we need to know about anger and emptiness in the First World. The choreography is West Side Story played for keeps, while the great costumes by Alison Reeds run from the conventionally sleek sharkskin suits of Mike’s gang to the mythic leather and steel of Curly, that infinitely daunting geezer.