Writers write to show us what they think, feel, and believe about a particular situation. We, as members of the writer’s audience, demonstrate that we are interested in the writer’s point of view by buying a ticket, sitting ourselves down in a seat, and allowing them to guide our attention for a short while in order to communicate it with us. But when we experience a revival of an older work, we don’t sit down without our modern cultural baggage. Even the most celebrated writers, and the most gifted of actors, might find it hard to get us to check it in the vestibule before entering the venue.
So is Nikolai Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman” a tragic story of a poor, ill man whose path winds inexorably toward an institution? Or, in these days when every state has criminal stalking laws on the books, and rightly so, is it simply a story that somewhat romanticizes paranoid schizophrenia, a mental illness for which we, today, have better understanding (and also better treatments, albeit not perfect ones.) I don’t think it’s possibly not to entertain the latter perspective, while still being able to appreciate the former.
This one-actor play, at approximately 70 minutes, is performed with consummate skill and precision by Ilia Volok, an amazingly talented actor whose face the audience will no doubt find familiar, as he’s done over 150 film and television roles. His rendering of the character of Poprishchin, the titular Madman, is at once both touching and frightening and he careens from descriptions of mundane and quite ordinary behaviors to strange certainties; dogs have always been able to talk, that he, himself, is Kind Ferdinand the 8th of Spain, and that China and Spain are actually the same country.
Poprishchin is obsessed with Sophie, the daughter of the man he works for, hanging around outside her gate, following her as she goes about her shopping and despairing over her attention to a young Chamberlain. Ultimately his obsession leads him to confront poor Sophie in her own bedroom, the act which leads to his incarceration in an asylum. As a woman in 2017 I am, of course, utterly unable to argue that that is not where he belongs, despite the horrendous conditions he experiences therein.
Whether you burden “Diary of a Madman” with current attitudes regarding breaking and entering or madness, there is still something in this short play that Gogol hints at very cleverly and, yet, is never so unsubtle as to try and highlight or explain – Sophie’s father, “His Excellency”, the Director of the place where Poprishchin works, judging by Poprischin’s description of him, demonstrates the entitled cluelessness of the very rich toward the very poor.
How is it that the Director invites Poprishchin into his home to organize papers and sharpen pencils on a weekly schedule and doesn’t notice that he’s showing signs of being desperately unhinged? Apparently, the Director is so wrapped in his own bubble of indifference and wealth that he’s utterly unaware that he is exposing his own daughter, in her own home, in her own boudoir, to the attentions of someone who is dangerously mentally ill. He doesn’t notice a single odd quirk – not the disheveled clothes, not the paranoid affect, nothing at all.
The Direction of the play is simple, elegant and inspired. Eugene Lazerev composes his picture, chooses music, guides lighting and costuming, to create an environment where Ilia Volok can personify the story without any sort of editorializing. With this kind of directorial support, Volok is able to validate that, yes, there is no question that we’ll be watching someone who’s very ill, but that his illness isn’t all there is to him. It’s rather like a singer opening a concert by performing their biggest hit song; by beginning with madness established by the theatrical environment, we are then free to try and connect with the other parts of the madman’s personality, his love of theatre, his yearning for self-respect, that are being slowly obscured by the disease as it progresses.
And in a nod to modern folks with modern sensibilities, Volok and Lazarav don’t make any attempt to elicit sentimental sympathy for Poprishchin’s behavior while still allowing us to feel sorry for the man himself. This is a tightrope act that comes off beautifully.
Diary of a Madman will run until November 12th at the American Theatre of Actors, Beckmann Theatre, 314 West 54th Street, New York, NY 10019. Tickets are $30, and can be obtained either by using smarttix.com, or by calling the ATC at 212-581-3044