We Can’t Stop Fighting About Kate

Kate on Kate. Photo: Emilio Madrid

Forget the spit. Forget Thrones and Rings and the queen. Drama is brewing right here in New York City, asylum for the glamly deluded. Even with its excesses and its odors, it can be easy for New Yorkers to forget that this place is special, that it can really change you — until you find yourself in the middle of an argument like the one we had this week.

Recently, a lot of us here in the city saw something we can’t stop talking about, and when we started debating its merits in the New York office chat, things got heated fast. This person who had made it — was she brilliant? Was she shallow? Was it dated or timeless, baggy or tight, too long or too short? Was there catharsis? Did it need it? Was it hacky? Was that the point? Some of us (I won’t say who) started to get angry. There was backchanneling. There was furious typing. Some of us invited dissent, craving healthy engagement and calm, mature discussion. Others at first refused to engage, then made insulting memes, then finally and dramatically left the chat. Those healthy ones were my colleagues. The latter — she was me.

I’m not proud to say it. At one point (two weeks ago) I never could have imagined getting so worked up over an Off Broadway one-woman show. But Kate really did something to me. I laugh-cried throughout and burst out of the Connelly Theater demanding a martini and declaring Kate Berlant my new god. “It was a masterpiece,” I kept saying, “a masterpiece” — while ordering another, ill-advised drink. I woke up hungover yet high on art, like an extra in Rent or some other show I haven’t seen; I know nothing about theater. I couldn’t help but wonder: What if live performance wasn’t dead? And what if women could be geniuses too?

Because the strategy worked for me, I advise that you go into Kate semi-blind. I will say that the show is a faux-autobiographical riff on an actress’s desperation to make it big. It is not sincere about its plot. It is not sentimental. Some might, rightly, call Berlant a clown. If you want to learn more about it, though, you should really read my colleague Kathryn VanArendonk’s very smart review. As she writes: “Like much of Berlant’s work, Kate is an embodiment and celebration of performance, a towering and gorgeously produced monument to superficiality, playacting, pleasure, excess, and the self.”

Kathryn is more measured on the show than I. When Berlant’s mask slips and she betrays a true feeling, Kathryn found herself wanting more. We agree on this, though: “Berlant’s performance throughout is exquisite, impeccable, and absolutely deadpan.”

Kate rendered me helpless. I don’t want to examine that; trying to understand why feels like staring at the sun, or doing couples therapy with my psyche. At risk of alienating my colleagues further, I’ll share my first theory about who will love Kate and who won’t: If you’re inclined to fandom, sweet and sincere, this show is not for you. If you’re inclined to be a hater, you might just fall in love. It’s the nicest way I can say it, and I hope you will forgive me; I’m still reeling that a seven-layer dip of irony and trope could be so life-affirming. Consider this hater defeated. I hope this meme I made will say everything I can’t.

Everyone’s Arguing About Kate Berlant