NEW YORK — Can a modern-day troupe of European performance artists capture the ennui of privileged, avant-garde artistes and hangers-on during a hot New York City summer in 1965, in the midst of social upheaval that included civil rights violence, anti-Vietnam War anger and rising feminist outrage?
Attempting to do just that is "Gob Squad's KITCHEN (You've Never Had It So Good)" a zany, audience-participation experience that opened Monday night for a very limited run off-Broadway at The Public Theater. The British/German collective Gob Squad, who conceived and perform the show, provide a rotating cast of actors who drolly seek to reconstruct the creation process of Andy Warhol films, primarily his limp, plotless 1965 "Kitchen."
They cleverly parody dialogue and events from the original film, adding wry modern perspective and a genuinely sweet air of trying to make it "authentic." To that end, they eventually replace themselves onstage with willing audience volunteers, who are given dialogue and instructions through a headset.
Initially, the audience watches three separate, grainy, black-and-white videos as they're created live backstage, while the cast earnestly attempts to behave as they think hip people would have done 47 years ago. The time warp keeps slipping between 1965 and 2011, with non-stop comical results.
The actors offer delightfully shallow ruminations on things that were once new, like sexual liberation, space exploration and instant coffee, often interrupting themselves and quarreling about how the scenes are going. At a preview performance, Sarah Thom, Sharon Smith, Nina Tecklenburg and Sean Patten performed as two sets of people: their present-day selves, discussing the film and their motivation, and also as a 1965 version of themselves (helpfully called Sarah, Sharon, Nina and Sean) enacting their own version of "Kitchen."
The four try to generate some fake liberal anger and sexual energy, seek to portray the "genuine nothingness" that Warhol achieved, and eventually just dance wildly around on the nicely cheesy kitchen set. Their lack of historical knowledge causes much hilarity, as when an adorably mischievous Tecklenburg tries to persuade a very unwilling Smith to snort Nescafe, claiming that everybody who was hip snorted instant coffee in the '60s because it still had cocaine in it.
Thom is particularly funny as her 1965 self, using a bad Southern accent and slinging around her "big 1950s breasts" that she says don't compare favorably to Smith's "small, revolutionary, Sixties breasts." Attempting to act like early feminists, the pair loudly call one another "Sister!", and when Thom tells Smith, "We need to stick it to the man!", Sharon replies, with 21st-century political incorrectness, "And then he doesn't call." Patten is both diverting and wistful as Sean tries desperately to access his inner hedonist, which he gradually realizes may not even exist.
The success of each performance depends on what the cast can get out of their audience replacements, but they seem quite good at selecting uninhibited volunteers and working creatively with them. Playful and smart, "Gob Squad's KITCHEN" runs through Feb. 5.