Two decades ago, when Geoffrey Rush first played Poprishchin—the lovelorn lunatic diarist of Nikolai Gogol’s short story The Diary of a Madman—he based his interpretation on Daffy Duck, the born loser who keeps getting up off the the mat, no matter how many times he gets his bill handed to him. Today, as Rush reprises the role that launched his career (and the golden age of Sydney’s now-legendary Belvoir theater company), there’s still plenty of Looney Tunes in his rangy, whip-limbed, full-body performance—along with just a hint of Guillermo del Toro’s lank, chicken-skinned Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth. (Director Neil Armfield, with key assists from Mark Shelton’s shadowmancing lighting design, emphasizes all of Rush’s generous extremities, physical and histrionic.) Sporting a tragically overtended tuft of carrot-hued hair and a desperate self-importance to shield him from the soul-squelching bureaucracy he inhabits, Rush’s Poprishchin—an aging St. Petersburg civil servant nursing a doomed, Prufrockian love with his division-chief’s daughter (Yael Stone)—is a marvelously entertaining invention, a mash-up of Russian-clowning, Aussie cheek and theater-for-theater’s-sake monkeyshines. By the end, you expect him to body-surf the audience. (Attention, first five rows: Don’t count on that fourth wall holding.) So electrifying is Rush’s crack-up, it more or less eliminates the social machine that created it. Gogol’s social critique is more or less drowned out, and the late-breaking pathos (the diarist, having declared himself King of Spain, ends his days in a madhouse) isn’t as penetrative as it might have been. (Only the lovely, durable Stone, who also plays Poprishchin’s Finnish servant Tuovi, reminds us that a universe exists outside of her employer’s head.) Here, Poprishchin’s madness is triumphant—there’s no world beyond it to impinge upon it, nothing beyond it satirize or even consider. Here, Daffy Duck wins, hands down. Bugs who?
Does any director in New York trust his cast as much as actor-director and actor’s director Austin Pendleton (CSC’s The Three Sisters)? In his bleached-bones, no-budget remount (for the Mother of Invention Theatre Company) of Tennessee Williams’ 1972 barroom diorama Small Craft Warnings, Pendleton dispenses with set and dynamic lighting design, and employs only minimal blocking and folding chairs on grimy risers: It’s practically a staged reading, a small, scrappy production of one of William’s smaller, scrappier plays. It takes place in a seaside dive, and the sound of waves hits us, roughly in rhythm with the barflies’ monologic unburdenings. (Pendleton has eliminated Williams’ stage directions, calling for direct-address interior monologues, but the speech still sounds speechy.) And Pendleton’s faith in his players isn’t always well-placed: Alienated minimalism doesn’t excuse dead-eyed barely-there-ness—or, worse, simple lack-of-preparation—and this production is blotted with unfortunate black-ice patches of it. Ross Kramberg (as weary barkeep Monk) and John Greenleaf (as disgraced, drunken phyisician Doc) more than hold their own, but the same can’t be said of Gina Stahlnecker’s Leona, the play’s keystone. Her sodden, flailing aimlessness feels a little too convincing, especially when her lines seem to slip from her. (Stahlnecker is also the company’s artistic director.) Pendleton, playing a gay screenwriter trying to pick up a roadside trick, provides one of the play’s most powerful moments as he fights his own defeated romanticism, now inseparable from his cynicism and mere predation. Moments like these show us what this stripped-down Small Craft might’ve been with a bit more rehearsal, and a cast that was more uniformly up-to-the-task.
The Diary of a Madman is at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through March 12; Small Craft Warnings is at the Studio Theatre at Theatre Row through February 27.