Dad in a Box Review: A comedienne trying to be funny while her father is dying

On a break from an improv class, Kim Katzberg gets a phone message from her father and calls him back to learn that he has pancreatic cancer and is dying. “I feel so sad AND excited,” she tells us in “Dad In A Box,” her one-woman play at HERE Arts Center.
Why excited?
“Because this is real…Think of the art I can make from….” She interrupts herself. “I can’t believe I said that. How shallow!” – then immediately adds: “How marketable!”
And repeats “How shallow! How marketable!” several more times.
This off-putting moment gives a taste of the uncomfortable candor and strained humor of the hour-long play.
In “Dad In A Box,” Katzberg weaves together two very different kinds of scenes. There are little skits and parodies that Kim is presumably presenting to her improv class, along with her improv teacher’s tepid reactions to them; most of these are in pre-recorded videos. There is a mock commercial, for example, hawking a CD that trains you to meditate and do vigorous exercise simultaneously. These routines alternate with a personal story that Katzberg either narrates or re-enacts. The scenes mostly involve her family — father, stepmother, sister, brother. For several of these scenes, she acts in person as one character opposite a video of her face as another character, which is being shown on a laptop that sits atop a dummy’s torso placed on a chair.
Katzberg has been critically praised for some of her previous theater pieces, which include “Strays,” “Darkling” and “Penetrating the Space.” I cannot praise “Dad in a Box,” which did not work for me. I found none of the jokes and routines funny. I realize some were meant to reflect Kim’s indirect efforts to come to terms with her father, but they weren’t effective. The videos, which were poorly made, felt like an intrusion on the personal story. But even the personal story seemed a work in progress, self-conscious and confessional, as if Kim the character’s ambivalence and anger had not yet been fully processed by Katzberg the artist.
There were moments, however, that suggested the powerful play that Katzberg could have fashioned – that she could still create. We see her portraying her brother Richard, “a real-estate banker guy,” driving her from the airport to their father’s home. (Kim is on that laptop atop the dummy, in a back seat.)
He’s confident, boasting….. until they discuss their difficult childhood. “I just don’t let it bother me,” he says, but then tells the story of how their divorcing parents sent him to boarding school and argued over who would pay for it — “using me to get back at each other.” We see him tighten his grasp on the (pantomimed) steering wheel; we watch his face harden. It was just a flicker; it was subtle; it worked.

Dad in a Box
Written and Performed by Kim Katzberg
Directed by Raquel Cion
Set Design by Kerry Chipman
Lighting Design by Derek Wright
Video Design by Jacqueline Reed
Videos by Kim Katzberg, Raquel Cion and Maia Cruz Palileo
Running time: One hour
Tickets: $20
Dad in a Box runs though April 13, 2019, Thursdays through Saturdays.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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