Heal Thyself?

Therapy and cruelty in the days before drive-through pharmacies

Kvelling and Kvetching In the days before the founding of the Prozac Nation, when the term "chemical imbalance" hadn't yet been embraced as incontestable doctrine, people actually spent time talking and thinking about how to deal with neuroses and the other accoutrements of modern life. Those efforts-dredging up the past, sifting through unpleasant memories, facing up to cold reality-were far more painful and labor-intensive than swallowing a pill but (if data from the pharmaceutical industry are correct) far less effective at removing the symptoms of our problems.

But it's hard to swallow the notion that we're any better off. The roots of our unhappiness and our anxiety are still there, coiled around our neurons, deeply rooted in the cavities of our brain tissue. When the pills eventually wear off, we'll find ourselves staring into the mirror and wondering what the hell to do next.

Facing up to the fact that we're fucked-up is at the heart of two plays currently running on local stages: Kvetch, Steven Berkhoff's scatologically inflected one-act comedy at the Actors' Playhouse in Long Beach about neuroses afflicting a Jewish-American family, and Blue Window, a bittersweet Craig Lucas comedy at the Vanguard Theatre Ensemble about a loose-knit group of twentysomething Manhattanites attempting to deal with isolation and insecurity. Both are so obviously products of the 1980s that it's hard to imagine playwrights crafting similar plays today. The antidotes they offer for their characters' neuroses are either too simplistically empowering (Berkhoff: accept that you want what you want and tell guilt to fuck itself) or too bleak (Lucas: it's quite possible we'll never feel any better than the way we do; the most we can hope for are moments when feeling better feels possible). In both cases, the prescriptions are far more difficult to fill than a trip to the drive-through pharmacy.

For whatever reason, the urban Jew remains America's most potent symbol of impotent urban anxiety. Whether it's Woody Allen's films, Phillip Roth's novels or Lenny Bruce's acidic tirades, the American Jew has long seemed to corner the cultural market on psychological ills. Berkhoff's Kvetch, while lacking the intellectual edge and literary merit of Allen, Roth, Bruce and company, certainly does its part in regurgitating the cliché. It's not a good play, but it's hard to sit through Kvetch unaffected.

Berkhoff, an eccentric English dramatist, once wrote that theater "should deal with the profane and the unmentionable. . . . The confession of angst can heal, but it needs full, frontal attack, not subtlety." In Kvetch, he has crafted one of the most vulgar, cruelly direct plays I can remember seeing on a local stage. His characters are wholly unlikable. They're bundles of contempt and guilt that can barely mask the loathing they feel for one another.

Kvetch begins with Frank (Morgan Christopher) inviting his friend Hal (Jack Thomas) to dinner. To his chagrin, Hal accepts. This simple change in the family dynamic dissolves Frank, his wife, Donna (Lorianne Hill), and his mother-in-law (Jo Black-Jacob) into neurotic engines of guilt and anxiety. The play's gimmick is one borrowed from Eugene O'Neill's Strange Interlude: the characters' innermost thoughts and secrets are delivered aloud; other characters can't hear them but the audience can. And a foul lot those thoughts are: whining and complaining about the sorry state of their lives, musings about killing one another, relentless insults. Donna fantasizes about being gang-raped by filthy garbage men as Frank gives it to her under the covers, while Frank secretly imagines Hal sliding his cock up his ass just so he can get it up to shtup his wife in the first place.

Does that sound harsh and obscene? Try sitting through the litany of sex, fart, shit, ethnic and mother-in-law jokes. It's a testament to our masochistic tendencies as audience members that it's also damn funny at moments. When the action shifts from Frank and Donna's house, it descends into uninteresting situational comedy, neutering Berkhoff's point-thin as it is-that the only way out of unhappiness is to discover what we want and go for it.

Director Giovanna Fusco's production is to be credited for not short-changing Berkhoff's coarseness and for her staging of the often-confusing dialogue shifts. Where this play suffers, however, is in characterization. The actors (particularly Christopher and Hill) don't look their parts: Christopher is too imposing, and Hill is too vibrant. Neither physically captures the air of decay and desperation needed to make their plight feel compelling. Fusco needs to rein in her cast, the majority of whom seem to have attended the Big Acting Academy. The notable exception is Hill's finely layered performance, which shines brightest during the two monolgues in which she imagines being ravaged. Subtlety may not work in Berkhoff's vision, but it's sorely needed for this play to work on any level other than mere shock.

As vulgar and mean-spirited as Kvetch may be, Lucas' 1984 Blue Window is bittersweet and emotionally moving, particularly in the sensitive hands of director Erin Saporito. Lucas is one of the country's most successful playwrights today (he wrote Prelude to a Kiss and the screenplay for Longtime Companion). This is an earlier play, one that doesn't feel as well-crafted as his later works, but thanks to this production, it feels every bit as humane.

The play begins quite stylistically, with all seven characters roaming about the same apartment apparently oblivious to one another. We gradually learn we're actually in five different apartments, and all of the characters are getting ready for a dinner party at Libby's (Patricia J. Francisco). The device is interesting stylistically as well as thematically (while the characters share the same fears and desires, they're mostly oblivious to one another), but it drags on a bit too long.

There is no plot in Blue Window. It's a character- and dialogue-driven play, one of those rare pieces in which what's truly happening is in those empty spaces between the lines. Saporito realizes this and guides her actors to carefully detailed performances that illuminate Lucas' very smart script and the underlying sadness beneath it. So while we hear characters wittily and intelligently discuss the merit of Moby Dick and the divisions between the left and right sides of the brain, we can feel the unhappiness and isolation each of them feels.

The ensemble works well together, with Francisco's vulnerable Libby, Shelly Frasier's utterly natural family therapist Boo, and Janie Lynch's complex Emily standing out. The play fells like a coming-of-age tale of the early '80s, kind of a younger Big Chill. Like that film, the message here is there are no easy answers. These characters are gripped by loneliness and isolation. They keenly crave community, but they aren't sure how to get there. And though the play ends on an apparently uplifting note, it remains pungently bittersweet. Griever (a very effective Andrew Kelley), up to this point the most apparently well-adjusted of all seven characters, ends the play alone and small, huddled in the frame of his window, staring down at the streets of Manhattan. Meanwhile, in her apartment, Libby eloquently imagines an existence in which we're able to realize the freedom of coming together rather than holding onto the fears that keep us drifting alone. It's a powerful and profound final image, proving that while there isn't much of a story in Blue Window, there is a lot of life. For better and for worse.

Kvetch at the Actors' Playhouse, 1409 E. 4th St., Long Beach, (562) 590-9396. Sat., 4 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through April 11. $12-$16;Blue Window at the Vanguard Theatre Ensemble, 699A S. State College Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 526-8007. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m. Through April 3. $15-$19; student and senior discounts available.

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