The Diary of a Madman: Theater Review

As a showcase for Geoffrey Rush's formidable gifts, this tragicomic descent into insanity is tailored to near-perfection.  

"The King's Speech's" Oscar nominee Geoffrey Rush gives a staggering performance, and when the buffoonery and pretentious airs are erased by the cruel reality of his character's schizophrenia, the actor's powers are fully unleashed.

NEW YORK – Anyone unconvinced as to the manifold skills at Geoffrey Rush's disposal might want to consider the purposeful intensity of his Oscar-nominated performance in The King's Speech alongside the febrile Looney Tunes physicality of his tour de force in The Diary of a Madman.

Adapted from Nikolai Gogol's 1835 short story by David Holman, with the collaboration of Rush and director Neil Armfield, the play was first performed in Australia in 1989. It was revived late last year as the swansong of Armfield's tenure as artistic director of Sydney's Belvoir company.

Like Armfield and Rush's collaboration on Exit the King – which played Broadway in 2009, winning Rush a Tony – this play is a rollicking funhouse ride with dark undertones that gradually crystallize into pathos, making the two productions ideal companion pieces. While the Eugene Ionesco play tracked an egomaniacal monarch's terrified slow march toward death, this Gogol adaptation chronicles the inexorable slide into madness of a St. Petersburg civil servant with delusions of grandeur.

The literary source material is culturally tethered to a specific time and place, but the story still resonates loud and clear. Scratch the surface of any city today and you'll likely find legions of paper-pushers like Rush's character, Aksentii Ivanovich Poprishchin -- stagnating in soulless bureaucracies while craving validation from unforthcoming bosses and spewing contempt for their colleagues.

And just as Poprishchin vents his frustrations in diary entries that show an increasingly fragile hold on reality, his contemporary counterparts often fuel their rage and paranoia by flaming their enemies in cyberspace. Czarist Russia has nothing on the anger coursing through the blogosphere.

Baz Luhrmann's regular design collaborator Catherine Martin has transformed the Harvey Theater's expansive stage into a garret right out of La Boheme. Its lurid blood-red walls and acid-green angled ceiling threaten to close in on Poprishchin, while rain hammers the skylight and drips into tin pots littered about the floor.

That sound adds to the rich musical accompaniment. Played by multi-instrumentalists Paul Cutlan and Erkki Veltheim from a box stage-left, it mixes Alan John's melancholy compositions with improvised agitation and whimsical cartoon sound effects. Similar notes of menace and mockery are played by Mark Shelton's merciless lighting, which conjures an additional cast member out of Rush's jittery shadow.

Made up like an ancient fop and crowned by a goofy orange quiff ringed by baldness, Rush looks like some bizarre cross between Quentin Crisp and Baby Jane Hudson.

A pompous yet somehow endearing figure, Poprishchin struts, flounces, dances and drapes himself around the sparsely furnished space, bemoaning this sorry excuse for a "gentleman's lodgings" and the indignities of his job. He makes mischievous sport of the limited language skills of his Finnish maid, Tuovi (Yael Stone, comic and compassionate). And he dreams of romance and instant elevation with the department director's daughter, Sophia (also played by Stone).

His mind already unraveling, Poprishchin starts overhearing conversations and intercepting letters between Sophia's pet pooch and another dog. But a bite on the nose brings the rude awakening that Sophia is otherwise engaged. When Poprishchin reads that the Spanish throne has been vacated, a fresh obsession takes root.

While Gogol's short story is counted among the finest examples of the compressed-narrative form, there's a hint of bloat in this version stretched to just over two hours. But a little self-indulgence seems permissible when the clowning is so endlessly inventive, reaching dizzying absurdist heights in Poprishchin's accounts of canine espionage.

Purely as a display of an actor's vocal and physical technique, this is a staggering performance. But it's when the buffoonery, arrogance and pretentious airs are erased by the cruel reality of Poprishchin's schizophrenia that Rush's powers are fully unleashed.

Appearing to grow more emaciated before our eyes, he awaits the Spanish delegation, valiantly convincing himself that the humiliations of the asylum are the idiosyncratic customs of his subjects to welcome their new king, and that his straitjacket is a regal robe. When he can no longer pretend, it's harrowing.

Venue: BAM Harvey Theater, New York (Through March 12)
Cast: Geoffrey Rush, Yael Stone
Playwright: Adapted by David Holman, with Neil Armfield and Geoffrey Rush, from the short story by Nikolai Gogol
Director: Neil Armfield
Set designer: Catherine Martin
Costume designer: Tess Schofield
Lighting designer: Mark Shelton
Music: Alan John (after Mussorgsky)
Sound designer: Paul Charlier
Presented by Brooklyn Academy of Music, Belvoir