By Alan Bennett
Directed by Joe Banno
Produced by Washington Shakespeare Company
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Kafka’s Dick is a play about…you know. No, wait, that’s not entirely true. Although his…you know…is involved, it’s really a play about Kafka coming back from the dead. Imagine this: “Kafka was dead: to begin with. There was no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner…”
No, wait. That’s another play. O.K. Kafka’s Dick is about Kafka (Chris Henley) coming back from the dead to discover that his literary executor, Max Brod (Bruce Alan Rauscher), also back from the dead, has not burned his work as he promised to do but has instead sold it, and virtually everything else Kafka wrote up to and including grocery lists, for fame (Kafka’s) and fortune (Brod’s, to some extent).
That’s the first act. In the second act, Kafka’s mean old dad (Ian Armstrong), also back from the dead, and his unpleasant, passive mum (Charlotte Akin), also… you get the picture … seek to convince Sydney (John Geoffrion), an insurance clerk with aspirations to be a literary critic, that dad wasn’t such a bad fellow after all.
Kafka’s Dick is, like the old Seinfeld series, a play about nothing – or, more specifically, a play about itself, about its own cleverness, polish, literary allusions, sophistication and flat-out gorgeousness. And it is flat-out gorgeous, from Hannah Crowell’s magnificent set to Matt Otto’s wonderful sound design to Rauscher’s extraordinarily deft comedy to Bennett’s deadly wordplay. When Sydney, who must surely be the most pretentious literary critic in the history of insurance clerkdom, pronounces as a literary equation that “Kafka” is actually “F = kaka” Brod observes, “This isn’t literary criticism. It is the one art in which the British excel: crossword puzzles.”
Alas, Bennett may be providing the epitaph for his own work here. He has Brod, unaccountably incontinent on his return from the dead, inadvertently baptizing Sydney’s tortoise – who metamorphoses into Kafka. He has Sydney’s wife, Linda (Adrienne Nelson) fall hard for Kafka, who is so at war with his own body that he visited a nudist resort – and refused to take off his shorts. Linda is not well educated but she shares one thing with Harvard University: she is remarkably well endowed, and Brod, for one, intends to take advantage of it.
Bennett has Sydney’s elderly father (Bryan Cassidy) desperately preparing to resist efforts to take him to the nursing home by showing his command of the facts around him (the days of the week, the name of the prime minister, and so on). Regrettably, the efforts of Sydney’s dad to keep himself up to date on Kafka scholarship are stymied as the revenants from the Kafka family constantly attempt to spin their histories in order to win the approval of posterity. Clever, clever, clever, Mr. Bennett, but to what point?
Staged by the inventive Joe Banno, featuring some of Chris Henley’s best work, Rauscher’s customary sustained excellence, and fine performances by Geoffrion and Cassidy, Washington Shakespeare’s production of Kafka’s Dick gets just about as much out of the script as anyone could reasonably expect. That is to say, the first act is hilarious, and the first hour and a quarter is a delight.
Unfortunately, the play clocks in at an hour fifty, and our interest begins to flag about a third of the way into the second act. There, we are engaged in the singularly tedious effort of Kafka’s dad to reverse history’s treatment of him by blackmailing Kafka about his – you know, which was in any event a matter of public record, thus influencing Sydney the insurance clerk. Watching this, brothers and sisters, is as exciting as working on a crossword puzzle.
Running Time: 1:50 minutes, with one intermission.
Where: Clark Street Playhouse, 601 S. Clark Street, Arlington, VA
When: December 12, 15, 21, 23, 27, 29; January 4,6,10 and 12 at 8 p.m.; Dec 16, 22, 30; Janu 13 at 2 p.m.
Tickets: Thursdays $25; Fridays and Sundays, $30; Saturday 8 p.m. $35; all Saturdays 2 p.m. are Pay What You Can.
Info: 1.800.494.tixs or visit the website.
Kafka’s Dick is playing at Washington Shakespeare in rep with Wendy Macleod’s The House of Yes, which bills itself a “suburban Jacobean Play.”