Blueprint Theatre Group

at the Firehouse

Frank and Donna’s marriage is falling apart. Gradually, inevitably, despite their efforts to play by the rules and keep things together. She’s desperate to be free, to find romance, to escape the drudgery of being a salesman’s wife; he’s experiencing a strange and taboo attraction to a male coworker.

It could be the stuff of made-for-TV melodrama (“Get me Marlo Thomas and Martin Sheen”). But in playwright Steven Berkoff’s inventive and eccentric mind it’s much more, and much better. Berkoff’s Kvetch, receiving a splendidly played Chicago premiere by the Blueprint Theatre Group, is a dark expressionist comedy about the internal conversations of its protagonists. Though the situation of its characters may not be shared by everyone in the audience, no viewer can fail to recognize the psychological patterns of insistent self-criticism that Berkoff so amusingly and instructively dramatizes.

Berkoff’s basic stage technique is simple, an improvisational-theater game called “give and take.” In the middle of a conversation between two or more characters one character suddenly shifts into another mode and speaks his or her inner thoughts, while the others onstage freeze in the middle of whatever they’re doing. Very funny on a sight-gag level, this game is also an enlightening exercise in subtext, with the actor expressing the currents of feeling that run under his lines. Played with split-second precision by the five-person cast under Keith G. Miller’s keen direction, Kvetch has both the spontaneous feel of good improv and the comic crackle of a well-honed play.

Much of what’s on the minds of Berkoff’s characters will be easily recognizable to fans of Woody Allen and Philip Roth. In a word, it’s anxiety: deep, pervasive, and perversely changeable anxiety, expressed in the self-lacerating internal diatribe that Berkoff labels the “kvetch.” For Frank, the Jewish salesman who brings his colleague Hal home to meet his family, this anxiety makes every moment a new adventure in terror. The simple act of telling a joke (“A Jew is sitting in a bar . . . “) is a psychological risk–as his wife Donna knows all too well (“I’ll have a heavy wash day tomorrow,” she says to herself, watching her sweating spouse). But equally risky is Donna’s attempt to join the conversation: “Jews don’t go to bars,” she says aloud, ruining his joke with her pasted-on smile. Inside she’s worrying about why she said that and her ulcers and how the meal tasted and why Frank brought somebody home without calling her–and oh boy here comes Frank’s scowl again. Hal, meanwhile, watches Frank and Donna’s easy rapport and wishes his own recently ended marriage had been better–and now he has to invite Frank and Donna over for dinner but he doesn’t cook oh well he’ll serve cold cuts but should he serve them in the living room or the kitchen. And Donna’s elderly mother–about whom people talk as if she weren’t there listening–worries about when her next belch is coming and how can Donna stand being married to this worryguts but at 30 she didn’t have any other offers.

That’s only the first scene. Later, after Christopher J. Fitzgerald’s clever set design has transformed the dinner table into the marriage bed, the heavy kvetches get going. That’s when Frank and Donna grapple with their hidden fantasies (hers are of being “used” by the garbagemen, his are of shiksas and, suddenly, Hal) in a shamelessly funny showpiece of sexual comedy. Reserved for the second act are Donna’s affair with one of Frank’s clients and Frank’s scared- shitless seduction of Hal–every encounter accompanied by the participants’ self-flagellating running commentary, which Berkoff quite adeptly keeps in an unnerving middle ground between silliness and seriousness.

Berkoff’s script is a showcase of verbal virtuosity that challenges the actors to shift vocal tones as they make their private and public statements. Director Miller further emphasizes physical humor, coaxing a particularly athletic pair of performances from Lee R. Sellars and Karen Pratt as Frank and Donna. With his five-o’clock shadow and paranoid edginess, Sellars is a cross between Richard Nixon and Philip Roth’s complaining Portnoy; Pratt is nerve-janglingly perfect as the overly talkative, milk-of-magnesia-guzzling hausfrau. As Hal, Guy Massey is a bit too young and pretty–his striking good looks make Frank’s attraction to him less comically unlikely. But by playing his part with gut-level emotional truth, he’s quite effective as the seemingly easygoing born-again bachelor who’s burning with loneliness inside. Natalie Stein and Bill Russell provide adequate support as the mother and the client, though their failure to find different emotional levels in their characters keeps them on a light sitcom level that the other actors rise above.