Element Theatre Company

at Cafe Voltaire

A passionate follower of Antonin Artaud, British playwright Steven Berkoff has a reputation for creating plays that, in the words of Times drama critic Ned Chaillet, “use theatre as a visceral force, drawing energy from what [Berkoff] calls “the lower echelons of the body.”‘ Nevertheless, his plays are rich poetic works, brimming with complex, sometimes nearly incomprehensible wordplay. His play West, for example, is written in a mixture of Elizabethan and contemporary English that some have dubbed Shakespeak.

Berkoff’s Lunch–first produced in London in 1981, a year after West–is also poetic, though this time Berkoff draws on T.S. Eliot, not Shakespeare. Like Eliot, Berkoff is fascinated by the spiritual and sexual sterility of modern life. And like Eliot, Berkoff is determined to reveal the latent poetry in contemporary speech. In fact, much of his dialogue sounds like Eliot, as when a character remarks, “The wind blows like spiderwebs across our face.” Berkoff even quotes “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

But unlike Eliot, Berkoff, as befits a disciple of Artaud, creates characters who, though no happier than Eliot’s, are at least more in touch with their sexuality. In Lunch his characters suffer the same ambivalence that paralyzes Prufrock–but only momentarily, as one phase in their hectic love lives.

The play concerns a pair of desperately lonely people who meet by chance on their lunch hour, are attracted to each other, and proceed to literally squeeze six weeks’ worth of a relationship into less than 60 minutes: from early self-conscious conversations and sexual fumblings through first fights and second thoughts to more successful sexual fumblings. They end with a note of arch sentimentality: “Lovely I think you are,” the man says to the woman. To which she replies, “The sea is lovely, and you.”

In the Element Theatre production this moment is played as a kind of happy resolution to the play’s apparent problem: will these two stay together? I think that’s a slight misreading of the play, which is more concerned with the unanswerable “Why do they stay together?” than with the answerable “Will they?” Moments before the two were hissing and spitting, calling each other “clenched malice” and “poisonous spider.” Yet this production asks us to read Berkoff’s happy ending without irony.

The problem is that Dan Torbica and Wendy Rohm seem much more comfortable with the comic side of Berkoff’s material than with the cruel and bitter side. So they earn laughs with the flimsiest of comic lines. Woman: “I don’t mean to sound bored.” Man: [To audience.] “She sounded bored.” And then they stumble when Berkoff tries to lead them into carnality. When, just before they make violent love, Rohm says to Torbica “Devour me,” she delivers the line in a sweet, pleading tone that’s nearly devoid of sexual undercurrents. Likewise, when Torbica embraces Rohm, he seems so relaxed and comfortable with her that the hug seems more like a warm greeting than a prelude to down-and-dirty activities.

These are not necessarily fatal flaws. Rohm and Torbica make an extraordinarily likable couple, and they deliver Berkoff’s poetry with understated ease. It’s just that in transforming Lunch into an entertaining, purely comic one-act, they (and director Kenny Mitten) lose touch with what Berkoff describes as “the primeval forces” that twist and turn through the subterranean layers of his play.