A British celebrity cook’s life isn’t so camera-perfect in Torben Betts’s Caroline’s Kitchen, a U.K. transplant now playing in 59E59 Theaters’ Brits Off-Broadway festival. The high-tension new play centers on BBC cooking host Caroline (Caroline Langrishe), the “darling of Middle England,” whose privileged life goes up in flames over the course of an evening—along with the roast.
Caroline’s Kitchen takes place in the titular kitchen, where Caroline is wrapping up a rehearsal for her show’s season finale and preparing a family feast. Things start happily enough, as Caroline puts on her charming television persona for the rehearsal (“Sounds divine,” she eagerly chirps about a Swedish almond cheesecake) and boasts of her son’s graduation from Cambridge. But as the evening drags on, her life devolves at the hands of a family and staff who all have problems to share: a son (Tom England) who’s coming out as gay; a snippy assistant (Jasmyn Banks) with a drug problem and news of a PR crisis; a conservative husband (Aden Gillett) confronting his own mortality; and Caroline’s carpenter-turned-lover Graeme (James Sutton), who’s looking for something more. The characters’ various backstories and squabbles with each other all play out on a collision course—especially when a new guest (Elizabeth Boag) arrives with an agenda of her own.
Betts’s already emotional tale unfolds in a heightened fashion, with a pervading sense of anxiety that starts immediately—as Caroline hustles to prepare dinner while shooing away the TV crew—and never lets up. Alastair Whatley’s production has a quick, chaotic pace, with characters constantly entering, exiting, and making demands of Caroline (“I need your attention!” her son pleads), that makes the proceedings play out more as a dark farce than a serious drama. As that label suggests, there’s much to be entertained by here: the plot is chock-full of intrigue from the characters’ lives, and Betts’s script includes comedic moments that cut through the play’s darker themes.
Yet the play’s efforts to cram in as many dramatic turns as possible results in a claustrophobic piece that doesn’t give the characters, or audience, much room to breathe. Some of these plot points even feel wholly extraneous, like the assistant Amanda’s phone conversation with a married lover that’s barely ever mentioned again. The constant tumult also makes the work feel largely one-note, as the perpetually amped-up tone prevents the more climactic moments of drama from landing with the resonance they should. Aiding this stressful heavy-handedness is the show’s sound design (by Max Pappenheim), which transitions from chirping birds to an annoyingly unrelenting thunderstorm that’s a bit too on-the-nose in underlining the characters’ impending doom.
The performers help make the unending drama more compelling to watch, with portrayals that feel more multidimensional than the production itself. Langrishe as Caroline shines in a demanding role, conveying the posh yet endearing charm necessary to Caroline’s television success—and the cracks that lie underneath her put-together façade, from her drinking problem to referring to her son’s sexuality as “a little gay experiment.”
England’s performance as Caroline’s son, Leo, manages to balance his blend of self-righteousness (“My understanding of the world isn’t channeled via the corporate media,” he tells Caroline) and childlike vulnerability, while Gillett successfully tackles the husband Mike’s brash combination of charisma and sleaze. Banks does well as Amanda at putting forth the character’s gossipy, faux-nice persona—which devolves into being “stark, staring mad,” as Mike describes her—but her attempts at the character’s more emotional moments, like a discussion of her mother’s struggles with multiple sclerosis, feel slightly disingenuous.
James Perkins’s homey set design provides a cheery backdrop for the harrowing proceedings, as the bright, well-appointed kitchen soon becomes cluttered with the evening’s detritus. The kitchen’s pastel palette and TV-ready feel serves as an ever-present reminder of Caroline’s happy television façade pitted against her stark reality—but, for the audience, as for Caroline, one wishes this sense of contrast hadn’t been taken quite so far.
Caroline’s Kitchen runs through May 25 at 59E59 Theaters (59 E 59th Street, between Madison and Park Aves.). Performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 7 p.m., with matinee performances at 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit 59e59.org.