Yes, the title means what you think. Poor Kafka, overendowed with
paranoia, underendowed with . . . . He never wanted fame, never
wanted to be published posthumously, felt betrayed on all fronts-what's
a man who's been adjectiveized (you've heard of Kafkaesque?) to
British author Alan Bennett (who's been writing plays since Beyond the Fringe in the '60s) has fashioned a satiric-surreal farce that takes aim at many targets, not the least of them self-indulgent literary criticism. Sidney, an insurance man, is writing a treatise on Kafka for his company newsletter (!). Something of an expert on Kafka, Sidney dotes on odd facts, like gleaning "evidence" from Kafka's writings to support the thesis that, indeed, he had a small dick. Neither he nor Linda, his unfulfilled wife, is quite prepared when Max Brod, Kafka's best friend and confidant, appears at their doorstep. Nor could they have anticipated that when Max urinates on Linda's tortoise, that it would transform itself into Kafka himself. How did Max and Kafka end up in 1986 London? Don't ask, just go with it. Yes, it's that kind of play.
But it's also a highly intelligent play that requires a lot from its audience. Although much of Kafka's writing is rehashed in the course of discussions about life, fulfillment, and what one really wants out of life (much of it very funny), it is helpful to have at least a passing acquaintance with Kafka and his work. Director Jennifer Evans Ward found many visual equivalents to this play that incorporates too much, rambles, and circles back around on itself. Most of the set (by Todd M. Reemtsma)-several sets of bookcases, desks, chairs-was on wheels and was continually in motion, being pushed, pulled, and propelled across the stage, creating obstacles, helping the characters make points, and being as ubiquitous as the continuous stream of words that pours forth. The whole back and sides of the stage were covered by a painting of the rolling English countryside (Leona Lair), and the floor had a wood pattern, but no, it was actually more like a river's currents, or better yet, the wavy craziness of Munch's "The Scream."
The cast rose to the challenge of the script, rarely getting lost in its swirls and eddies. Robert Meksin as Sidney was stolid and laughable, but never the sole butt of the play's humor. Suzi Axis as Linda was endearingly self-effacing, and later believably took charge of her own life. David Koppel's Max was pushy, self important, and unapologetic. As Kafka, Kent Weston held up beautifully against Bennett's slings and arrows, being alternately arrogant and shy. John Montague as Kafka's father gets the best of the ridiculing of literary interpretation: he proposes that Sidney's article refute his well-known role as the monster of Kafka's existence. They were actually an ordinary father and son, and Kafka will vouch for this -- because if he doesn't, dad will reveal his son's, uh, shortcoming . . . . Michael Janove was a hoot as Sidney's father, who can't make head or tail of what's going on; he only wants to prevent his being sent to a home. Sometimes the audience knew how he felt.
Some of the preciousness became tiresome, but the eclectic Gallery Players are to be commended for reviving Bennett's vision of Kafka's hell. The best joke was at the coda-heaven is an exclusive club, with no metaphors, yet Kafka's father is God. Kafka is miserable. Of course. In spite of its title, the play is actually somewhat prudish, but just imagine the editorial meetings at the New York Times if the play was mounted anywhere but Off-Off Broadway. Which may be the ultimate triumph of Kafka's Dick.
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Copyright 1999 David Mackler