Not like anything you’ve seen before. In a very, very good way
LA’s Kate Berlant just put in one of the most compelling and thrilling performances I’ve seen this year. She has honed her years of improv and comic acting into a deluded diva act that is utterly bulletproof, without a muscle out of place at any point. From the off she talks up the show as being ultra-hyped, too dangerous to be broadcast, the subject of pickets outside, and we are the lucky ones who get to see her in the flesh and hear her precious utterances.
It actually takes a few minutes to get used to the tone, and her act, so inside it she is. But that’s entirely in keeping with her character: she’s a narcissist who cannot conceive that she needs to ease us into what’s going on, we are assumed to be on her wavelength. The whole joke, really, is that we are not.
A conventional comedy show it ain’t. There are few “routines” as such to speak of, we don’t know where things are going, and it’s not clear how scripted it is. The vibe reminds me of pretentious actors on chatshows who are indulged to speak about themselves and their art in lofty terms. The difference here is, there’s no one to rein her in.
And yet despite its impressionistic nature, this show is full of wickedly funny moments. A riff on why a female US president would either have to be a “slut” or an unemotional robot is sublime in its execution, as everything is here, to be honest. Her sketch-lette in which she imagines herself as a wife with a big family, trying to get the kids in the car while the husband makes some inane comment, is similarly inspired. Her piece on the potential sexual chemistry between her and her mother and brother is troublingly well done. And everything is annotated with pompous self-commentary of herself and what’s going on.
There is no point to any of what she says. It’s all about the subtext that she is a superior being, deigning to impart to us her nuggets of wisdom. At one point she simply says the word, “America”, and decides that that’s enough: she is able to freight that one word with so much meaning, that nothing more needs be said.
A semblance of structure comes when she moves into a section in which she attempts to read our minds. She bats off her failures and turns them into successes with sublime defensiveness – and is definitely improvising on this occasion as she responds to the audience.
The only problem Berlant encounters is keeping momentum. This is effectively a character piece, in which everything she says is serving the character and subtext. It’s elusive and wilfully hollow. Hence why she introduces the mind-reading section, I think, for a bit of tangibility. And it’s also perhaps why she has a support act in Phoebe Walsh to bring it up to an hour. It is impressive, though, that she gets 45 minutes out of something so nebulous.
Nonetheless, Berlant’s control and talent is prodigious. And in an overcrowded market she has managed to come up with something genuinely unique, with perhaps just a nod to Sarah Silverman’s Valley Girl persona. My overriding feeling is that I want to watch all of this again, immediately.
Review by Paul Fleckney
• Kate Berlant is at Soho Theatre until Saturday 12 October