Steven Berkoff pulls vowels like taffy, slices and dices consonants like so much unsuspecting produce. He’ll roll a choice phrase around in his mouth like a punctilious dandy at a wine tasting, only to spit it out like a football hooligan inciting a pub riot. In his rendition of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the murder transpires not at night but at “nnnnniiiiiggggghhhhh” (pause) “tah.” Give him a diphthong and he’ll hand you a loaf of challah.
The title of his latest spartan production is literal: In the self-directed One Man, 64-year-old Berkoff has no scenery to chew, but the London fringe-theater veteran savors every last syllable of this trio of monologues. Sound and space alike are malleable, tactile. Alone on a bare stage, the gifted mime pushes through doors and sprints down spiral staircases—sometimes barely veering from his mark below a narrow, stationary spotlight. In “Actor,” one of two original pieces, the titular over-the-hill thespian, desperately hustling for work, runs in place from beginning to end. The “Tell-Tale” recitation finds Berkoff playing both the doomed old man (cowering beneath his bedcovers) and the monomaniacal killer (grinning malevolently before his prey) in strobe-speed quick changes; the alternating tableaux vivants evoke a series of Eddie Campbell panels.
Adapting Poe also allows Berkoff to indulge his taste for the visceral or, more often, the body-functional. He furnishes the grisly corpse-disposal episode with a slasher flick’s quota of moist sound effects: squirts, squishes, the occasional queasying pop. In the last monologue, “Dog,” about a garrulous lager lout and his faithful pit bull, Berkoff favors the audience with an epic pissing scene, more projectile bleeding, a vomit banquet (don’t ask), and a pioneering method of physical intercourse between man and dog (please don’t ask).
The surfeit of body horror summoned groans and even shrieks from the opening-night crowd, but Berkoff, whose last New York appearance was the lecture-cum-omnibus acting stunt Shakespeare’s Villains, also won a standing ovation and three encores. His reputation precedes him: A notorious if grudgingly respected crank back home, his more evocative play titles include Brighton Beach Scumbags and Sturm und Drang; he also wrote, directed, and starred in a film called Decadence, with Joan Collins (!). (Berkoff recently told a British reporter, with no apparent irony, “People obviously don’t have my skills in directing. I see ensemble in a way as my messianic cause.”)
Always commanding, often repellent, Berkoff the performer is also something of a bully. His technical mastery is dazzling, but he can’t resist unleashing it at maximum volume with every breath. He bowls over not only the audience but the text itself: A bout of actor’s Tourette’s attenuates and mutes the “Tell-Tale” finale, while the racist boor of “Dog” seems merely a flimsy excuse for the aforementioned gross-out spasms and a gutter-Streep rendition of accents (Scots, Irish, and in the character’s choice parlance, “Paki”). “Actor” mawkishly deploys “To be or not to be” as the vocational lament of the self-doubting would-be thesp, and Berkoff’s aggressive bravado only widens the gap between his skills as writer and orator. “One Man” is undeniably a collar-grabber: loud, insistent, rich in gestural detail. The best and worst that can be said of Berkoff is that when he’s on stage, there’s no room for anyone or anything else.