Diary of a Madman

by Jonathan Leaf
Wednesday Feb 23, 2011
Geoffrey Rush
Geoffrey Rush  (Source:Stephanie Berger)

Nicolai Gogol is rarely mentioned among the list of great gay artists and intellectuals.

Is that because he was as closeted as could be and only seems to have had one gay lover? Or is it that homosexuals themes don’t appear in any clear fashion in his writings?

No matter the reason, gay intellectuals may wish to take note and claim another historic name.

Unlike the many shoddy and stupid depictions of insanity that are lauded -- like the one in the movie A Beautiful Mind -- this is very credible.

I thought about that while watching BAM’s new -- and startlingly brilliant -- adaptation of Gogol’s short story Diary of a Madman. The production stars Australian stage and screen vet Geoffrey Rush. This weekend audiences around the world will see Rush on the Academy Awards telecast. More than likely they’ll watch him grab an Oscar for his performance as speech therapist Lionel Logue in the new movie The King’s Speech. His performance in that movie is remarkable. But what he does on stage of the Harvey Lichtenstein theater is more extraordinary.

This stage production is being called an adaptation. But it comes close to being an original work and the adapters -- writer David Holman along with Rush and director Neil Armfield -- should properly get Drama Desk consideration for Outstanding Play in addition to the categories for Actor and Director.

Wisely, Diary of a Madman starts off in the manner of Laurel and Hardy, and while the first act runs a tad long there are plenty of laughs as Rush breaks the "fourth wall" by bantering with the offstage orchestra and horsing around with a Finnish servant-girl (the plucky and appealing Yael Stone). Rush’s character, a minor government official in Tsarist Russia of the 1830’s named Poprishchin, mocks the girl’s poor Russian in between episodes in which he fantasizes that a beautiful, high-born maiden will take to him. Her indifference is among the many things that throws Poprishchin off balance, converting him from a solipsistic egotist to a victim of a condition we would now most likely term psychotic depression.

Poprishchin’s descent into lunacy is the subject of the play, of course, and if it initially provokes titters it eventually becomes almost tragic. Unlike the many shoddy and stupid depictions of insanity that are lauded -- like the one in the movie A Beautiful Mind -- this is very credible. Like all madmen, Poprishchin is desperate to believe that he is special, and this assumes its form through his growing conviction that he is to be crowned as the King of Spain. Also like most of the demented, he is adept at denial. We watch as he convinces himself that the depredations he undergoes when he is placed in a mad-house and then stripped, shaved and beaten are rituals preceding his coronation. The off-stage music, adapted from Mussorgsky, underlines his alternating bouts of joy, paranoia and despair. With Rush’s subtle capacity to convey comic brio, humiliation and pathos, the result is something special. We are led to see madness as something real and pitiable which someday we, too, might suffer. Diary of a Madman continues through March 12 at the BAM Harvey Theater at 651 Fulton Street in Brooklyn. For more information visit the BAM website.

Jonathan Leaf is a playwright and journalist living in New York.


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