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It’s been a few years since the American Revolution, but a quick look at the theater listings might convince one otherwise: in the theater Britain still dominates (“Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the stage . . . “). Not that there’s anything wrong with the occasional Tom Stoppard or Simon Gray opus, it’s just that sometimes our theater companies seem to value the British author over what might well be a superior American writer. And it can become a wee bit tiresome to hear yet another indictment of Thatcherite or Majorite England or another ode to the rough-and-tumble savoir faire of the British working class. Sometimes slogging through a morass of imperfect British dialects and deciphering the ironic references to contemporary English woes can be rewarding, but often it can prove alienating.
Steven Berkoff strikes me as a third-tier British playwright. Not quite a hack, but not Gray either. True, in Greek and Lunch Berkoff displays a talent for capturing the poetic rhythms of speech and for whipping off evocative and arresting monologues. Yet there’s an emptiness behind all the virtuoso wordplay–fancy language and stage tricks substitute for something genuinely original.
Greek, currently playing at Transient Theatre, contains some spellbinding monologues, a few captivating images, and a couple of witty one-liners, but despite its attempts at profundity it cannot escape what it is–a pretentious, overblown version of a cheap music-hall gag. Modernizing the story of Oedipus is such a tired concept that, no matter how you twist and turn the plot, it’ll be hard to wring any life out of it. Indeed, Berkoff’s play reminds one less of Sophocles’ classic tragedy than of a creaky Mel Brooks sketch. (“OK, boys, we’re gonna bring Oedipus into the modern world. We’ll call him Eddy. We’ll give the story a happy ending. We’ll throw in a lot of swear words so we can call it ‘Oedipus: The Motherfucker.'”)
Berkoff presents us with a grim, nightmarish London wracked by a horrific plague, a world where violence is commonplace and marauding thugs terrorize a population numbed by impotence and television. Eddy is the son of a couple of working-class Londoners who send him out on his own after hearing a prophecy that one day he will murder his pa and sleep with his mum. The wandering Eddy finds himself in a luncheonette, where he bitches out the waitress who forgets his coffee, slays her husband–the manager–who tries to toss him out, and marries the grieving waitress to comfort her.
In the play’s most intriguing moment Eddy encounters the mysterious Sphinx, and after some insightful verbal parrying between them that lays bare some of the hatred and unspeakable inhumanity afflicting society, Eddy solves the riddle and destroys the Sphinx. The details of how he discovers his own dreadful little secret need not be elaborated.
What is most disconcerting about Berkoff’s play is that, like his vision of England, it’s inhuman, lacking in emotional depth. His characters are grotesque cartoons in traditional Greek whiteface. And though his quirky, profanity-laden language occasionally strikes gold (“This drab of grey / This septic isle”), too often it reeks of overkill (“Fuck my fucking husband, fuck it!”). Berkoff bombards us with frightening images, but somehow his play remains unaffecting, almost dull.
The Transient ensemble play up the script for laughs, but they’re most successful in its eerier moments, like the exquisite scene between Eddy (Tom Daniel) and the Sphinx (Lisa Nicholls). Daniel’s cheeky, wiseass take on Eddy is faithful to Berkoff’s script, but it fails to generate either sympathy or spite in the audience. Director John Swanbeck certainly does an adequate job of making this peculiar play accessible and understandable, but at times the production falls victim to theatrical cliche: expressing working-class angst and rage by having actors claw at the fence they stand behind is a rather tired concept. But then so are most of the concepts in Berkoff’s play.
Strawdog Theatre fights a similarly unsuccessful battle against Berkoff’s writing in its late-night production of his surreal vignette about male- female relations, Lunch. A dreamy mixture of banal dialogue and stream-of-consciousness poetry, this one-act tells of a vaguely erotic encounter between a man and woman at a seaside cafe. Using this simple framework Berkoff takes a decidedly cynical look at the dating game, exploring the unspoken desires that linger behind seemingly unremarkable phrases.
Whatever merit this theatrical quickie might have is squandered in Kerstin Broockmann’s stiff, passionless production. Mannered recitation takes the place of characterization, and performances recall well-executed acting-class exercises, better suited perhaps to a radio play than to a staged performance. Berkoff’s language can certainly be faulted on a number of counts–sheer pretension being one of them–but at least it offers actors the opportunity to delve into its syncopated rhythms and eccentric imagery. This production leaves virtually every avenue unexplored.