Steven Berkoff(Photo: Snowdon)
Steven Berkoff
(Photo: Snowdon)
When actor/writer/director Steven Berkoff steps on to a bare stage to begin his One Man show, it's a good bet that the reason the stage is empty is that he completely and thoroughly chewed and devoured the scenery during a previous performance.

This is a case where an actor's bite is worse than his bark. And Berkoff's bark is plenty loud and insistent--especially in the third of his three One Man monologues, titled "Dog," in which he plays (among other slobbering and panting creatures) a pitbull terrier. In all three monologues, Berkoff embraces a broad, expressive style of performance. He leans heavily on mime, but he is a whirlwind of various techniques; call him a One Man band. It's impressive that he can play the equivalent of so many instruments, and he certainly makes you listen and watch. Yet, for all of his skill, you are likely to feel more awestruck than moved.

Berkoff most recently performed another one man show, titled Shakespeare's Villains, at the Public Theater. Now he has returned as writer-adapter-director-star of One Man, which garnered rapturous reviews in England before making its way to the theater at 45 Bleecker. In the first monologue of the evening, Berkoff enacts the Edgar Allan Poe story "The Tell-Tale Heart," playing the parts of both killer and killee as well as the inquiring police. In the course of the story, Berkoff is a man of a thousand faces: His expressions change so constantly, instantly, and totally that he could make a chameleon blush with shame, and his voice is as flexible as his face. He makes great use of the brass and the strings in his voice as he moves up and down the musical scale, but it's his rhythm section that really sets him apart from other vocally gifted actors; the unique syncopation he brings to his line readings will cause you to hang on his every word. His "The Tell-Tale Heart" is a big, showy performance in which, unfortunately, the interior lives of the characters are not exposed with any real emotion. Berkoff communicates the macabre sheen of Poe's story but the characters are lacking in humanity; one might say that his take on the story is flashy, not fleshy. (The flash, we should add, is smartly enhanced by Giselda Beaudin's atmospheric lighting designs.)

Berkoff's middle monologue, "Actor" (which he also wrote), comes closest to displaying true feelings, which is probably why we found it more satisfying than the other two. The piece is written and performed with an impressive blend of fluidity, coupled with the theatrical equivalent of jump cuts, as Berkoff shows us the life of a struggling thespian. From a cocky young fellow to a beaten, bitter, older man, he plays this self-absorbed, singularly focused actor to the hilt. Through almost the entire piece, Berkoff walks in place as the character meets and greets his fellow actors, the women he will marry and divorce, the mother who dotes on him, and the father who berates him. We see the thesp fail at auditions, scream at his agent on the phone, bury his parents, and beg for work, yet he never doubts himself for a moment. It's an ugly life that unfolds before us, and Berkoff doesn't flinch from it.

The last piece of the evening, the aforementioned "Dog," was also written by Berkoff. Here, he plays a pitbull terrier, the vicious pet of an even more vicious human whom Berkoff also plays--a beer-guzzling football (read soccer) fanatic who lives large and thinks small. We watch this boorish Brit drink, snarl, and shout from the safety of our seats in the audience; if this were real life, we'd either run like hell or call the police. As it is, we're repelled by the guy's belligerence, but Berkoff keeps us amused with his performance as the dog. It seems that the pet hates its owner and constantly threatens to attack him. Ultimately, the love/hate relationship between man and pooch mirrors our own feelings about the subhuman fellow; hateful though he may be, his spark of humanity is revealed, even if in broad comic strokes. Here, as in all three sections of One Man, Berkoff's acting is simultaneously focused and ferocious.

Like a performer from the old school, Steven Berkoff plays to the back row of the house. He can express subtle emotions, but he usually does so in a very grand manner. If that style is not currently in vogue in this age of cinematic stage acting, it is nevertheless bursting with craft. And even if you don't really like what Berkoff does, he'll impress you.