Heidrun Lohr in The Diary of a Madman>>>
Nikolai Gogol’s The Diary of a Madman (1835) is a story that three young men 22 years ago adapted into an evening’s entertainment for Sydney’s Belvoir Theater. The English playwright David Holman, the Australian director Neil Armfield, and his fellow Australian, the actor Geoffrey Rush, had themselves a ball, which they have now brought to the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater for a stay through March 12th. Nice that they did, but I could easily have waited another decade or two.
It is the story of Aksentii Ivanovich Poprishchin, a 42-year-old, lowly clerk of the ninth grade in Tsarist Russia’s civil service, living in a filthy St. Petersburg garret apartment, railing against the world around him, and dreaming vainglorious dreams about his future. He keeps a crotchetily meticulous diary, and gets an evening soup from his landlady’s Finnish servant, Tuovi. In exchange, he gives her some dubious Russian lessons.
Poprishchin rants against his departmental supervisor, Mikhailov, but is proud of sharpening the quills for his revered departmental director, on whose daughter Sophia he has a hopeless crush. It is all a satire on the Byzantine bureaucracy, as well as mockery of the pretentious but hapless petty clerk, who slowly sinks into dementia.
He has overheard a conversation between Sophia’s dog, Medji, and another dog, Fifi, whose correspondence (really the dirty paper lining of Medji’s basket) he manages to steal, and from which he learns that Sophia is about to marry a gentleman of the Imperial bedchamber, which further unhinges him. He has visions of Sophia visiting him—once even for a brief dance—but even her visions run from him.
Rush gives a masterly, perhaps even memorable, performance, with enormous attention to every minutia. Even the red roosterish wig is brilliant: a showily pirouetting forelock up front, then baldness, finally a ring of hair, encircling temples and occiput like an audience in support of that prima donna forelock. His walk is an unholy marriage of mincing and strutting, and his speech, when not a complacent mutter, something like a poetry recitation in an idiot school. He is particularly funny reading aloud one of Fifi’s love letters, interspersing canine lyricism with barks of human disgust.
And so it goes until Poprischchin reads in a paper about a Spanish interregnum, with the throne vacant, and decides that he himself is Ferdinand VIII, King of Spain, in exiled hiding. Alas, his throne room is an insane asylum, with his head shaved, and his body denuded down to a jockstrap, a scarecrow even to a fellow inmate, Tatiana. Incidentally, Yael Stone gives staunch support as solicitous Tuovi, mostly spouting Finnish; Sophia, a doll-like creature in virginal white; and Tatiana, a cowering madwoman and fellow lost soul.
Catherine Martin’s scarlet brick walls and spindly furnishings are well judged, as is Tess Schofield’s costuming, particularly effective when our hero converts his military-style coat into a rattily trailing, would-be royal cape, while he rattles around in deluded majesty. All through, the two versatile musicians in a stage box chime in with Alan John’s variously instrumented music, frequently lapsing into demented squeals and squawks. Only Mark Shelton’s lighting fails when, bent on dramatic shadow effects, it becomes manifestly illogical.
Truly absurd, though, is the curtain call in which, for minutes on end, Rush and Stone leap about like goosed springboks to the groundlings’ fatuous delight. They, and especially Rush, deserve recognition for putting in arduous work, though how artistically valid the whole thing is remains a wide open question.
Brooklyn Academy of Music, Harvey Theater
651 Fulton Street,
Brooklyn Tickets; 718-636-4182 or online
The Westchester Broadway Theatre is presenting the charming musical I Do! I Do! (1966), based on Jan de Hartog’s no less charming comedy, The Fourposter (1951). It is a two-hander for the married couple Michael and Agnes, going from their awkward wedding night to the melancholy day when, elderly and their children grown and gone, they leave their house and fourposter after five, mostly happy decades, some typical minor crises notwithstanding.
The book and lyrics by Tom Jones , and music by Harvey Schmidt (best known for The Fantasticks, though this score strikes me as superior) comprise any number of endearing numbers, my favorites being “What Is a Woman?”, “The Honeymoon Is Over,” “I Love My Wife,” “It’s a Well-known Fact,” “Flaming Agnes” and the title song.
In the original production, Mary Martin and Robert Preston gave indelible performances, although Karen Ziemba and David Garrison, in a 1996 revival, also proved their mettle. Here the couple is winningly portrayed by deliciously sung and acted Lauri Landry (<<< pictured left) and pompously fussy but lovable Mark Zimmerman (pictured right >>>), and they do very smartly indeed what with Richard Sabellico’s compelling direction and choreography, and Jeff Biering’s assured musical direction. Steve Loftus’s set, Donald Bierly’s costumes, and Andrew Gmoser’s lighting also contribute handsomely.
Although the entire action is confined to the eponymous fourposter and its immediate vicinity, the incidents and implications reach out effortlessly and evocatively to anyone who is, or ever was, a husband, a wife, or just a lover of good theater.
Westchester Broadway Theatre
I Broadway Plaza, Elmsford, N.Y.
Through March 20 914-592-2222 or online
John Simon has written for over 50 years on theatre, film, literature, music and fine arts for the Hudson Review, New Leader, New Criterion, National Review, New York Magazine, Opera News, Weekly Standard, Broadway.com andBloomberg News. He reviews books for the New York Times Book Review andWashington Post. He has written profiles for Vogue, Town and Country, Departures and Connoisseur and produced 17 books of collected writings. Mr. Simon holds a PhD from Harvard University in Comparative Literature and has taught at MIT, Harvard University, Bard College and Marymount Manhattan College. To learn more, visit the JohnSimon-Uncensored.com website.