Torben Betts’ Caroline’s Kitchen is paced and acted like a madcap comedy.
But in fact it’s heavy on the madcap and rather short on comedy. A dizzying story of family secrets and thwarted love in the household of a popular London cooking-show doyenne, this longish one-act play has surprisingly few laugh lines. But take it as it is – brilliantly acted and directed, bubbling with quick dialogue and explosive motion – and it’s an enjoyable, at times poignant and even Wildean flight.
Caroline (the unstoppable Caroline Langrishe) has made a celebrity career out of a cooking show set in her own kitchen. But like everyone else in her little world, this hyperactive, controlling, and plaintively religious 50-something is profoundly dissatisfied.
An intricate web of anxieties and pains connects her and five other characters who roar, slink, or traipse through her kitchen. She’s carrying on with the much younger Graeme (James Sutton) under the nose of her blustering husband Mike (Aden Gillett). Depressed about encroaching old age, Mike yearns for Caroline to forgive him for an indiscretion of his own.
The play is stretched taut with the unsaid, with each character’s unwillingness to escape his or her own head and listen to what someone else needs to say.
Caroline and Mike’s son Leo (the excellent Tom England), a militant atheist and a vegan (though named for a pope), is just home from college with a First from Cambridge and a broken heart, aching to open up to his distracted mother. Graeme’s wife Sally (a superb comic-tragic turn by Elizabeth Boag) desperately wants the return of her husband’s affections.
And Caroline’s pert, drug-assisted assistant Amanda (Jasmyn Banks, entertaining and convincing even if her phrasing can be a little tricky for Americans to parse) persistently pursues unavailable men.
In the hands of a less gifted cast, or under a director with less finesse, some of the scenes of intense personal revelation might seem shoehorned in, or at least not entirely justified.
Such isn’t the case with a speech of Caroline’s, a kind of early climax halfway through. She relates her childhood wish for a love so perfect and complete that the lovers couldn’t survive alone, and would have to die together. The recollection is triggered when repentant Mike asks Caroline if she’s ever cheated on him, but immediately takes it back because “Oh, why am I even asking? I know you. I know how good you are, how loyal you are and how true. I know you don’t have it in you.”
Mike’s misplaced faith is only the play’s starkest evidence that certainty, like Caroline’s childhood dream, can only be a fantasy.
The staging by Alastair Whatley and the performances are snappy as can be. Characters step on one another’s lines, ignoring one another’s pleas for attention. The action whirls around James Perkins’ set, ultimately trashing it and making one feel for the stage crew who have to put it all back together.
Each miniature crisis erupts like a geyser only to be overtaken by the next. Trust, sexual orientation, aging, abusive parents, even climate change – Betts crams it all in with adroit stichomythic needlework, asking us moment by moment to lean in for the next joke but most of the time withholding it.
And a shiny chef’s knife makes an early appearance, quivers menacingly every time someone bangs the counter, and dares us to imagine it won’t fulfill Chekhov’s gun law.
Both frustrating and exhilarating, Caroline’s Kitchen heats up the theater like grilling meat spattering hot oil. Better get your apron on for this production from Original Theatre Company and Ghostlight Theatre Productions, part of 59e59 Theaters‘ Brits Off Broadway series, through May 25. Visit the website or call 646-892-7999 for schedule and tickets.