It's a pity that films only cast Steven Berkoff as a cold-blooded, deranged villain. In such pix as "Beverly Hills Cop,""Octopussy" and "Rambo," he has been repeatedly relegated to lethal, icier-than-thou bad guy roles. But let him loose onstage and he screams out with the range of an actor bottled up on screen for years. Like a virtuoso pianist running scales at breakneck speed, he takes chances you can only stand back and behold in utter astonishment.

It’s a pity that films only cast Steven Berkoff as a cold-blooded, deranged villain. In such pix as “Beverly Hills Cop,””Octopussy” and “Rambo,” he has been repeatedly relegated to lethal, icier-than-thou bad guy roles. But let him loose onstage and he screams out with the range of an actor bottled up on screen for years. Like a virtuoso pianist running scales at breakneck speed, he takes chances you can only stand back and behold in utter astonishment.

That’s not to say he’s perfect. Berkoff’s tour de force one-man show, making its American premiere, basically offers only three characters and a dog. Divergent in nature, they are all fascinating as exercises in the acting craft; but taken together as a single evening on an empty stage, they ultimately falter.

He opens the night with the least interesting, a rather monotonous (and uncredited) exploration of Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart.” The well-known story, of a man deranged with fear and half-crazed after he has murdered an old friend, gets lost in the pyrotechnics of Berkoff’s delivery.

He is all over the map with the character, possibly playing him from a mental hospital day room. The effect leadens the pace of a story that cries out for urgency.

Berkoff’s show flowers in the second act. In “Actor,” he creates a searing portrayal of a down-and-out thesp jogging through life, whether that means glad-handing other actors, visiting Mum or quite literally kissing the butts of producers.

Through biting asides and odd characters that pop up for only an instant, Berkoff inhabits the painful and pitiful qualities of constant rejection. When asked by a crony why he doesn’t find himself a real job, he screams with wounded indignance, “Sir, I am an actor.” Berkoff’s writing here, in verse, is especially engaging.

Finally, in “The Dog,” he explores the friendship between a working-class East End thug and his snarling Rottweiler. Though his accent is a bit thick for American auds, the characters are no less watchable.

Berkoff indulges in some grotesque imagery in the piece (the dog’s eating his owner’s vomit in one particularly unappetizing scene), but flavors it with a slice of working-class life that rings scarily true. The piece qualifies as a less touching, but much funnier version of a boy and his dog.

Ultimately, Berkoff is to be applauded for taking on subjects and scenes that other actors probably wouldn’t touch.

One Man

(UCLA's Freud Playhouse; 588 seats; $ 25 top)

Production

A UCLA Center for the Performing Arts, LA Theatre Works & UK/LA Foundation production of the U.S. premiere of a one-man play in two acts; directed, written and performed by Steven Berkoff.

Creative

Lighting, Stuart Anderson. Opened, reviewed Oct. 12, 1994; runs through Oct. 16. Running time: 2 hours.

Cast

Cast: Steven Berkoff.
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