Caroline's Kitchen, Emphasis on the Kitsch
Torben Betts's new domestic comedy lands in New York.
Brexit has been rough on British society. A once-proud empire crumbles before our eyes in Torben Betts's Caroline's Kitchen, which is either the worst domestic dramedy ever written, or a brilliant satire of the genre.
Betts's last play in New York, Muswell Hill, suggests the latter. A disciple of Alan Ayckbourn, Betts seems to delight in putting perfectly loathsome characters onstage and setting them on a collision course. For those with a morbid curiosity, the crash-and-burn can be great fun to watch, but it takes a lot of strenuous contrivance to get there.
This demolition begins in the perfectly innocuous kitchen of Caroline Mortimer (Caroline Langrishe), the Rachael Ray of England. She inexplicably hosts her cooking show live from her suburban London home, a business practice complicated by her intention to sell the multimillion-pound house in the coming weeks. As she and handyman Graeme (James Sutton) prepare for showings, she chills champagne to celebrate the return of her son, Leo (Tom England), newly graduated from Cambridge.
But when her assistant Amanda (Jasmyn Banks) learns that some compromising photos of an inebriated Caroline are about to be posted by the Daily Mail, and when a strange woman (Elizabeth Boag) shows up with a vengeful gleam in her eye, Caroline's day goes from hectic to unhinged. The arrival of her banker husband, Mike (Aden Gillett), only makes things worse, as the light English rain develops into a biblical downpour.
And truly, these grotesque caricatures of the British middle class deserve the flood: Mike is a sunburnt golf-playing tyrant who seems to revel in the humiliation of his wife. Leo is the kind of self-righteous crusader who might tell you over a glass of Moët that he would like Jeremy Corbyn more if the Labour leader weren't such a neoliberal shill. In a twitchy, giggly performance, Banks makes it obvious that Amanda has a huge cocaine problem. Compared with them, we can almost sympathize with the hypocritically religious Caroline…almost.
Langrishe is not quite believable in her soap-operatic performance, which relies too much on face-twisting expressions of angst. Gillett is even grander as the enraged Mike, barking and growling his lines. Still, he gives an impressive (and dangerous-looking) physical performance. Sutton is the most convincingly human of the bunch, helping us to sympathize with his character in spite of his bad behavior. Of the cast, he's the only one who has managed to break out of director Alastair Whatley's unsubtle production.
Whatley directs the cast like he's conducting a locomotive to hell, with the acceleration of line delivery compensating for the lack of organic tension in the script. It's like a 1970s farce, but far less sexy.
There are no slamming doors on James Perkins's set, which conveys the faux-rustic quality of the kitchen. A large knife remains framed on the central island counter for most of the play, and we know exactly what its role will be. Sound designer Max Pappenheim creates a fearsome storm just outside this cozy space, but lighting designer Chris Withers frustratingly refuses to play ball. As the thunder becomes louder, flashes of lightning accent the cheery daytime lighting that pours in through two side windows from the opening moments of the play: We never get a sense of gathering clouds; rather, this is a storm that inexplicably materializes on a cloudless day.
And that's a lot like Betts's script, which forces grand social commentary onto a play atmospherically unsuited to it. Rather than choosing a very important issue, he chooses every important issue: classism, infidelity, alcoholism, drug addiction, LGBT acceptance, and the voracious media. As a character inevitably bleeds onto the tile with no EMT in sight, Leo comments, "That's cuts to public services for you!" Betts might be poking fun at the inefficacy of such issue plays, and if so, he has succeeded by manufacturing his own. Caroline crowns this artificially overstuffed evening of mayhem and social critique with a false epiphany — a wilted sprig of parsley on a half-baked turkey of a play.
Still, 90 minutes of this so-bad-it's-good episode of Disasterpiece Theatre left me wiping away tears of laughter — which is more than I can say about most new comedies I see. Caroline's heavy drinking isn't a cautionary tale, but a suggestion for how this play can best be enjoyed.