When I walked out of Kim Katzberg’s Dad in a Box, I couldn’t stop thinking about responsibility. Not in the way where I was ready to join an angry mob demanding to know who was responsible for the last hour of my life. But in a way where I couldn’t stop wondering if it was a responsible act for the artist to have created this show.
And that’s the question of the first half of the piece, isn’t it? A few minutes into her hourlong solo show, Kim Katzberg is on a five-minute break from a comedy class in which she is, frankly and immediately, floundering and unfunny. She gets a phone call from her father, who tells her he is dying of pancreatic cancer, and can she come home? She is thrilled, as in the previous scene her teacher had been encouraging her, conveniently, to find something real to portray onstage instead of reaching for laughs in the deeply macabre sketches she’d been presenting in class that day. “How marketable!” she remarks, about the opportunity to make something real from the decline and death of her own father. Immediately she realizes “how shallow” that sounds. “How marketable! How shallow! How marketable! How shallow!” she repeats ad nauseam, one of many awkward lines played for laughs that never seem to come.
What follows is an hour of the bargain Kim attempted to strike with herself. Katzberg has gone against her own performative self’s original instincts and gone for the shallow, crafting a performance re-creating those final days with her father, and her own failure to say to him all the things she’d also left unsaid her entire life. While the framework of the plot as an improv comedy class seemed to have potential at the top of the show, Katzberg’s reliance on portraying her family members as broadly painted caricatures of the fully realized humans (that I assume) they (likely) are only highlights the lack of deep investigation she seems to have set out to do into her own family and into her own relationship with grief. Her brother is painted as a distant finance bro who’s accepted his past as passed; her sister is a trashy drugged-up loser with a can-I-talk-to-your-manager haircut; her father wears a bowler hat and takes his time forming his words. Further, Kim plays her own improv instructor and a bevy of her own sketch comedy characters in a series of inane and wholly unnecessary video interludes sprinkled throughout that seem meant to deepen Kim’s obsession with death as comedy as release.
And of course, at the end of the show, after Dad’s in a box in the ground, Kim is finally able to connect to something real and get a positive set of notes from her improv teacher! For the play’s final moment, she has written a quasi-eulogy in which she finally gets to unload the last however many years of her life. It is maddening simultaneously because she has spent the last 55 minutes re-enacting her failure and because she then added a coda in which she finally gets to succeed.
As a child to a lost parent, who dealt with countless other losses between the ages of seven and seventeen, and as someone whose artistic life has in large part been devoted to explorations of extended grief, I have to ask, “What the fuck?” This show made me angry. Really, truly, madly, deeply. Furiously. While I understand the impulse to make a show where you finally get to say those lifelong unsaids that you never got to scream at your own lost, I see so much more strength in letting sleeping dogs lie. It felt as though Katzberg found liberation from her past through portraying her family as a clown car of sad buffoons while waxing poetic about her own struggle to find the so-called real. Perhaps the real could have been found by letting the issues of her past remain there, and grappling more honestly with the present that resulted from them?
Which brings me to my question of responsibility. I may ask these questions because I’ve been retooling a show about my own mom’s death when I was a boy that previously caused a lot of familial anguish, but what are our responsibilities to the dead? What are our responsibilities to honor both the living remaining in their place and the memory of the lost? Even if the dead proved tough and abusive their entire lives? What is the point of making a show that screams at a group of strangers the words you were never able to whisper to their intended recipient, if not to get your own rocks off?