Friday, May 3, 2019

3 (2019-2020): Review: CAROLINE'S KITCHEN (seen May 2, 2019)

“Apocalypse Now”

As I’m often forced to note, each to his taste. Shows I love, others hate; shows I hate, others love. And everywhere in between. As review aggregators like Show-Score reveal, with critics’ scores in green, yellow, and red, many shows produce a traffic-light rainbow of opinions.

Caroline Langrishe. Photo: Sam Taylor.
This will surely be the case with Torben Betts’s Caroline’s Kitchen (originally titled Monogamy), an imported British sex farce, with a heavy coating of darkly satirical humor. It opened last night in Theater A at 59E59 Theaters, under Alastair Whatley’s spirited direction, as part of this year’s Brits Off Broadway festival. My theatrical taste buds enjoyed every last bite but a reviewer friend admitted he had no appetite for it.

Betts, whose Invincible, seen on the same stage in 2017, was an equally madcap domestic stew with multiple thematic targets, places the action of Caroline’s Kitchen in the attractive basement kitchen—expertly designed by James Perkins—of celebrity chef Caroline Mortimer (Caroline Langrishe) and her banker husband Mike (Aden Gillett). There, the appealing, eternally chipper Caroline, in her early 50s, broadcasts a “Rachael Ray Show”-like cooking show. 

As a crucifix hanging on the upstage wall indicates, Caroline’s also a devout Christian who even read Theology at Oxford. Not, however, that it stops her from either constant tippling or adulterous relations. This beloved icon of “middle England’s” values is, like those values, ripe for the compost heap.

When we first meet her, on a steamily hot June day, she seems to be in the midst of an on-the-air interview with a Swedish female chef, during which the latter presents Caroline with the gift of a knife. That glittering utensil thereafter sits prominently on the kitchen’s island counter, reminding us of Chekhov’s dictum about introducing a gun on stage.

The broadcast turns out to be a rehearsal Caroline has to cut short because she needs the kitchen to prepare a family dinner that evening to celebrate her son’s having graduated from Cambridge with a First. The Swede is actually her mini-skirted personal assistant, Amanda (Jasmyn Banks), the sexually voracious bombshell who throws her hips around as if their names were Twirly and Whirly.
Jasmyn Banks, Caroline Langrishe. Photo: Sam Taylor.
Soon, the fresh-mouthed, probably hopped-up Amanda—who often speaks in Yoda-like syntax: “Stuck she is in traffic”—is involved in trying to squash the paparazzi bottom feeders who plan to post career-threatening photos of Caroline taken when she was falling-down drunk. (Ah, the perils of celebrity!) The daughter of a woman with MS (everyone has a backstory), Amanda also takes a moment to tell her Jesus-worshiping boss that she considers God “a nasty old fuck.”
Caroline Langrishe, Tom England. Photo: Sam Taylor.
Four more principals, each passionately self-centered, soon appear. One is Graeme (James Sutton), a burly, former footballer in his mid-30s, who became a carpenter after a career-killing injury. A married man, he’s making repairs at Caroline’s house, which she and Mike are planning to sell. Older women being his thing, he’s having a torrid affair with her. He even feels discomfort when Amanda (who’s also carrying on with another married man) is all over him.
Tom England. Photo: Sam Taylor.
Leo (Tom England)—the right-wing Caroline’s socialist, vegan, climate activist, and, surprisingly, cigarette-smoking son—warns of the coming apocalypse. He says he wants to do humanitarian work in Syria rather than accept parental support for a career and new apartment, but he also must unburden himself of a secret regarding his sexuality. If only he could find a chance to express it.
Tom England, Aden Gillett, Elizabeth Boag. Photo: Sam Taylor.
Mike, Leo’s garrulous dad, enters like a windstorm, his face beneath his cap-line bright red from sun exposure, carrying his golf bag after a round on the links. During the game, someone he knows died of a heart attack, his face to the ground, his butt in the air. Concerned about his own mortality, he’s a loud, boisterous, force of nature, with Neanderthal-leaning social beliefs. Getting a word in edgewise with him is almost as unlikely as the hole-in-one he boasts of having sunk.
Aden Gillett. Photo: Sam Taylor.
The play exposes the emotional rift not only between Mike and Caroline but that between him and Leo. When Leo finally admits that he’s gay, Mike’s antediluvian inability to process what he’s heard is funny enough to be in the comedy hall of fame. As per the formula, of course, he, too, is extramaritally inclined.  
Elizabeth Boag. Photo: Sam Taylor.
Finally, there’s Graeme’s wife, Sally (Elizabeth Boag, who also starred, memorably, in Betts’s Invincible). She’s come to wreak vengeance because she discovered the Graeme-Caroline affair from Graeme’s phone, but everyone assumes she’s actually a lady named Mrs. Minto who’s interested in buying the house.
James Sutton, Elizabeth Boag. Photo: Sam Taylor.
Misunderstandings pile up, gallons of wine are downed, an apocalyptic storm erupts (evoked by a great sound design from Max Pappenheim and terrific lighting by Chris Withers), and the domestic equivalent of all bloody hell boiling over comes to pass. And I do mean bloody.
Tom England, Caroline Langrishe. Photo: Sam Taylor.
The entire cast carries out its rambunctious actions with remarkable comedic energy and aplomb, always maintaining a grounding in reality no matter how farfetched or bizarre their behavior. But as things begin to spin out of control, Caroline becomes the juggler whose task is to stay composed and keep things from flying off into chaos.
Caroline Langrishe, Jasmyn Banks, James Sutton, Tom England. Photo: Sam Taylor.
Langrishe displays the skill of an agile farceur, remaining consistently believable while executing Caroline’s task of keeping her stiff upper lip and sanity from collapsing amidst a veritable riot of zaniness, including her drinking problems, infidelity, and the challenges to her piety. Then there's the scandalous photos; Leo’s sexuality; Amanda’s manipulations; Graeme’s groping; Mike’s grousing; Sally’s jealousy; the big storm, and so on.

Gillett’s Mike is equally exceptional, especially since he must perform some unusually difficult physical tasks, including a dangerous fall that couldn’t be more convincing.
Aden Gillett, Caroline Langrishe. Photo: Sam Taylor.
Don’t expect to find yourself caring much about any of these inane creatures. They’re essentially cartoons, intended not to make you feel or, despite the coating of social import (some of it outdated), even think. So, if you can appreciate some well-acted, well-constructed, farcical mania, its 90 intermissionless minutes should give you lots of comic meat to chew on. Just be careful not to choke on all the funny parts.

59E59 Theaters/Theater A
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through May 25