You’ve been warned. At the beginning of Daniel Kitson’s “Keep” at St. Ann’s Warehouse, a frustrating show in ways that Kitson does and doesn’t intend, Kitson tells you that what you’re about to see “is not a stand-up comedy show, but neither is it one of the powerful pieces of storytelling theater I have made my own.”
It is, instead, a list, some 20,000 items long. (In fairness, a lot of those items are individual bricks.) Kitson, an English theatermaker with a bald head, thick glasses and a woolly voice that sounds like he has aspirated some of his beard, reveals that he spent six months compiling a list of every item in his home, minus comestibles, typing each object onto an index card, now lodged in the elegant 50-drawer cabinet behind him. He will read each card, averaging two to two-and-a-half minutes per drawer, which should take him about two intermissionless hours
The performance, he says, will require everyone’s full concentration — it was at this point on a recent evening that he tutted a patron taking a photo: “I don’t so much mind you taking a picture as being oblivious just at the moment when I’m discussing a need for focus” — and if anyone wants to leave now, the box office will provide a full refund. On the night I saw it — and at my own risk and cost, Kitson doesn’t usually speak to press, tolerate news photographs or provide tickets and will scold anyone he sees scribbling notes — no one accepted his offer. The walkouts came later.
If you plan to see the show, I would probably stop reading right now. Remember that old public service announcement slogan, “The More You Know”? Kitson’s shows, many of them absolutely miraculous, depend on the reverse. Foreknowledge of his swerves and structural fillips can kill a good time. (I went in relatively blind and my good time was wounded anyway, but your mileage may vary.)
The show Kitson promises sounds something like Spalding Gray’s “A Personal History of the American Theater,” which also combines file cards and personal reminiscence, or a durational performance in the vein of Andy Kaufman’s read-alouds from “The Great Gatsby.” But almost immediately, after a brief, alliterative list including “a brown plant pot with a plant planted in it” and “a burnt-out brazier with a blackened base,” he discovers a misfiled card turned the wrong way round, with a sentence or two scrawled on it. Then he finds another and another.
How much you enjoy “Keep” will probably depend on how long you believe that Kitson really means to read his list and that what is happening on this night is bizarre and without precedent. I’m extremely credulous (just ask my ex-boyfriends!), but I didn’t buy it for more than a few minutes. He can’t sell as spontaneous something that was rehearsed.
And in a move that’s probably even more exasperating than the original list would have been, he ultimately undercuts an insightful meditation on what we keep and why in favor of a gotcha and fairly guessable surprise. That wouldn’t mean so much coming from a lesser writer. But many of Kitson’s surmises are genuinely provocative, like his idea that holding onto stuff is “a way of bringing the people you once were into the present” or his anti-Marie Kondo theory that “if you’re only keeping stuff that makes you happy, you have only ever been happy.” So despoiling the integrity of the list feels like a loss. If this show is really about the admittedly naïve belief that comedians and storytellers who excavate their own lives for material will tell us something like the truth (told you I was credulous), then well played.
Still, it’s unfair to moan too much. Kitson, even on an off night, is smart, original and implausibly charismatic. His crowd work — aggressive, uncomfortable — is superb. But this is ultimately a lot of shag and very little dog. “Keep” seems to have lost its leash and its plot.
Through Dec. 19, at St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn; stannswarehouse.org. Running time: 2 hours.