In 1939, New Yorker writer James Thurber published The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a short story that has transcended its time and is soon to be made into an epic film by, improbably, Ben Stiller. The title character is an ineffectual, henpecked husband who has elaborate daydreams about commanding Navy warships and performing dramatic surgeries.
Meanwhile, in Austria, Franz Kafka had already labored over two incomplete masterpieces — The Trial and The Castle — about average citizens trapped in Byzantine mazes of secrecy and bureaucracy, helplessly flailing against an oppressive system.
In its own way, Diary of a Madman, now playing at the Mosaic Theatre, is both Kafkaesque and Mittyesque. It's a play about a deluded civil servant in czarist Russia whose vivid imagination overtakes the reality of his humdrum job of hopelessly pushing paper for a monolithic government. What's astonishing is that Nikolai Gogol, writer of the original short story Diary of a Madman, wasn't capitalizing on the existentialist musings of Kafka or the postmodern comedy of Thurber; he anticipated them, having published his story back in 1835. This is worth remembering when the narrative's seemingly familiar ideas (Terry Gilliam's Brazil springs to mind too) begin to play out in this stage version, adapted by David Holman, Neil Armfield, and actor Geoffrey Rush. This was, and is, a profoundly forward-thinking and fiercely political work, and it came almost a century ahead of its time.
For the role of Poprishchin, the lowly government employee who is onstage for nearly every second, Mosaic cast Ken Clement, an imposing, pliable actor who could perform in The Three Stooges as easily as Death of a Salesman. He wears both of these hats throughout Madman, spending most of the play straddling the tenuous line between comedy and tragedy. Wearing a severely parted, moplike blond coif that makes him look like a cross between Andy Warhol and Jeff Daniels' character in Dumb and Dumber, Clement's Poprishchin is, in the beginning, bright, blustery, and possibly a little manic but not yet certifiable. He writes furiously in a diary, documenting his boring life in his anonymous office and his drab attic abode, a crack-riddled wooden hovel beautifully rendered by scenic designer Douglas Grinn.
Poprishchin's rants soon border on incoherent. At times, they are difficult to follow for both the audience and for Clement, whose occasional line flubs feel like inevitable occupational hazards in a script littered with starts and stops, dashes and ellipses, the spontaneous verbal detours of an ADD-addled child. This passage is indicative of the rest of the play:
"Merchants with their umbrellas. What business have they with — ? Coachmen waiting for a fare. Nothing. Of gentlemen — none. I lie. One. A fellow clerk. Uniform — beige."
It's exhausting just to read this staccato prose. Clement's occasional mistakes are trivial as long as he captures his character's essence, which he does, exceptionally. His character undergoes an elliptical transformation from an embittered employee in control of his faculties to an untethered lunatic imagining himself the king of Spain, converting his meager furnishings into a makeshift throne. Clement is emotionally perfect, completely submitting to the lunacy, becoming a crazy person rather than "acting the part."
As Poprishchin's psychosis becomes permanent and all-consuming, there's a shift in the audience as well. What began as a kind of detached mockery of the character's mental fissures — Poprishchin imagines a pair of canines conspiring against him, a genuinely funny hallucination — graduates into a deep sympathy for his impending hospitalization.
It's not an easy polarity to pull off, but Clement, director Richard Jay Simon, and Mosaic's design team do. Just as Blair Brown's costumes degenerate from respectable middle-class work attire to a serf's tatters, so too does John Hall's lighting design comment on the character's collapse in its own way, blinding him or shutting off the lights when necessary.
All of that said, Diary of a Madman isn't always enjoyable. Though innovative in its concept, the play itself is long and unwieldy. For every dazzlingly brilliant passage, there's a linguistic bridge to nowhere — a short and ponderous scene whose inclusion is suspect. This could have been edited down to one act and lost none of its power.
Clement also could have used a stronger partner than Betsy Graver, who portrays three characters, notably a Finnish servant named Tuovi. It's not a role that will make or break this play in any production, and she's mostly fine, speaking convincing Finnish when called for. But for the broken English she's required to spout for most of her role, she overplays the part, channeling a wide-eyed puppy more than, well, the only sane human in the play.
Then again, is Poprishchin really crazy, or is his escape from the social structure a form of liberation? It's here that this play's three adapters locate Gogol's populist political anger. Like Kafka's Everymen, Poprishchin is a victim of circumstance, a man so deadened by the mind-numbing repetition of the day-in, day-out office grind — and so limited in the possibility of advancement in a system that's rigged against him — that it might drive any of us to think we're Napoleon.