Geoffrey Rush should win an Oscar for “Diary of a Madman” at BAM.
Obviously, he’s going to win the naked gold statuette for his nifty work in “The King’s Speech,” now playing in the Fort Greene institution’s movie wing, but what Rush is doing at the BAM Harvey in Gogol’s hellishly funny tragedy is acting — real stage acting — in its highest form.
The play itself is a wrenching thing — I’m not giving away anything to tell you that you can judge this storyline by the title — as Rush’s low-level administrative clerk Poprishchin descends into the worst hell of all: human delusion.
Act I is a comic joy, thanks entirely to Rush. After an excrutiating opening five minutes featuring Poprishchin’s Finnish-born porter Tuovi (Yael Stone) gratingly mouthing the Russian words for household objects, the clerk enters grandly, and the action of the play begins.
At first, Poprishchin is, as he frequently describes himself, a gentleman, however humble, of glorious St. Petersburg — which you’d never know from Catherine Martin’s wonderfully decrepit and oppressive set, was one of the world’s leading cities.
Initially, Rush plays Poprishchin as a man who knows his place in the bureaucratic order, and mocks himself even as he uses his poison quill to pen bitter tirades against that classic
triumverate of Russian literary tyrants: petty managers, mid-level Czarist officers, and landlords who won’t so much as add a dumpling to the evening soup.
Now, watching an actor scribble in a journal typically doesn’t make for scintillating theater action. But director Neil Armfield handles the notion of a “diary” wonderfully, by having Rush interact with two musicians who provide the violin scratch to accompany his scribbling, the horn “pop” of his punctuation marks, and the cocophony of his crossouts. When he speaks to the musicians and beats them to the punchlines, the audience is not only in on the joke, but is being set up to hear the more-violent voices beginning to rage inside Poprishchin’s head.
One of those voices — Poprishchin imagines at one point that dogs are talking and even sending each other letters — provides the play’s comic highlight. At first, Poprishchin is pleased to discover that canines can converse and correspond, and his obsession with obtaining the dogs’ missives is played for laughs, including Rush’s pantomime recreation of Poprishchin’s burglary of the letters from one dog’s bedding straw.
His reading of the letters themselves ranks as one of the greatest moments in stage comedy. At first, the clerk is pleased by the dogs’ attention to grammar and style. Sure, he’s put off by the constant digressions about food — dogs simply can not stay on point! — but even as he jokes with the audience, he completely convinces us that he is, in fact, reading the inner thoughts of two puppies.
It all turns dark when one of the dogs reports that his owner — Poprishchin’s unrequited love interest — finds the clerk a buffoon, setting into motion a horrifying descent from Poprishcin’s borderline respectability to his certifiable madness.
The subsequent scenes in an insane asylum are particulary gruesome, as the thin veneer of civility to which the clerk had clung are stripped away in a form of delusion that is as classic as it is modern. In his rants, the conspiracy-theorist Poprishchin could be in a Shakespearean tragedy from the 16th century or on a right-wing blog from the 21st.
All of the tragedy is accompanied by a smart, paranoid lighting scheme by Mark Shelton that uses footlights to create gargantuan shadows of the clerk against the disjointed ceiling and wall of Martin’s set. The effect is that we are witnessing a giant, out-of-scale human meltdown.
Of course, it all begins and ends with the performance by Rush, who may be 59 years old, but moves with the grace of an athlete in this delightful and horrifying sprint of a show.
“The Diary of a Madman” at BAM Harvery [651 Fulton St. at Rockwell Place in Fort Greene, (718) 636- 4100], Tuesdays-Saturdays, 7:30 pm and matinees on Sundays through March 12. Tickets $20-$95. For info, visit www.bam.org.