Review: ‘Kafka’s Wick’

Well, how would you feel if you came back from the dead to discover that the whole world knew every last one of your personal secrets, from your constipation ("in the textbooks") to the size of your penis (tiny)?

Well, how would you feel if you came back from the dead to discover that the whole world knew every last one of your personal secrets, from your constipation (“in the textbooks”) to the size of your penis (tiny)?

Franz Kafka, resurrected in Alan Bennett’s 1986 “Kafka’s Dick” (retitled “Kafka’s Wick” for U.S. consumption), is utterly depressed at the details of his entirely unlooked-for fame. And if the play Bennett has woven around “our Czech Chekhov” is more fun to discuss at a dinner party than to actually sit through, laden as it is with British public school toilet humor and Oxbridge one-upmanship, it’s still one of the more memorable events of New England’s summer theater season.

It has taken the play a Kafkaesque nine years to get to the U.S., in an Americanized version with a bowdlerized title. It’s no “The Madness of George III” and it has an unfortunate tendency to lapse into lecturing — its characters too often are mouthpieces for Bennett’s cleverness rather than living individuals.

Yet Bennett is clever here, even likable as he applies his theatrical skills to the price of fame, taking one of his cues from the Kafka quote emblazoned on the wall of the Berkshire Theater Festival Playhouse: Writing is the “sweet and wonderful reward” for serving the devil. And given the built-in limitations of summer-stock producing, director Arthur Storch and his cast and crew have done a remarkably stylish job with Bennett’s scatological fantasy.

The British playwright has always had a fascination with bodily functions, and “Kafka’s Wick” is top-heavy with references to urine, excrement, etc. Kafka’s name is deconstructed, as Bennett points out that if you remove the “f” it becomes Kaka, adding that T.S. Eliot is an anagram for toilets. Kafka’s overbearing father, who also comes back to life, teases and threatens his son unmercifully with the fact that he’s well endowed while his son is scarcely endowed at all. And Kafka’s friend and biographer Max Brod, who completes the trio of characters from beyond the grave, announces his arrival on a middle-class young American couple’s doorstep by urinating on it and the couple’s pet turtle. Shortly thereafter, the wife kisses the turtle (or is it another one?), upon which it promptly turns into Kafka. The play has more than a few elements of vaudeville and theatrical sleight-of-hand.

The play opens in 1920. Kafka in his sickbed is painted on a front drop, through holes in which Peter Bartlett protrudes his head and one arm as he creates, with charming reticence, a Kafka who’s the epitome of the minor civil servant who writes in his spare time. Brod visits him and Kafka extracts a promise that Brod will burn all his writings when he dies (in 1924).

But Brod publishes rather than burns, and by the time Kafka returns to life in Middle America in the present day, he’s firmly established as one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. Kafka’s privacy has been invaded and he deeply resents it.

As the play progresses, Kafka, Brod and Kafka Sr. mix it up with Linda and Sydney, the American couple, and Sydney’s aging father, who fears he’s about to be carted off to an old folks’ home. Period pop songs such as “The Sunny Side of the Street” and “My Blue Heaven” are interspersed with eerie modern synthesized riffs, with time out for Satie’s “Gymnopedies” as the play alternately frolics or bogs down wordily.

Why does Kafka appear in this particularly American home? Because Sydney is fascinated with biographies of great men — Kafka to the fore — and plans to write an article about him. Kafka Sr. turns up in order to have that article rewrite history and turn him into a nice guy — until he realizes that if he becomes nice, history will forget him. The final brief scene takes place in Heaven, gives us Kafka Sr. as God and Kafka and Brod as haloed angels, and is a bit too campy and unoriginal for what has preceded it.

Clearly “Kafka’s Wick” isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and there were some walkouts at the play’s U.S. premiere in Stockbridge. But there were also laughs, and the general standard of the production is laudably high.

Storch stages the play with skillful brio, shaping it and coaching it into a theatrical experience whenever possible. And even if set designer Michael Miller’s debt to tilted “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” surrealism is a bit of a cliche, it works well enough.

Bartlett’s Kafka gives the production a core of gentle strength, while David Sabin has the easiest time as Kafka’s bigger and badder than life dad. As Brod, Steve Routman doesn’t offer quite enough, seeming to settle for a vague Groucho Marx approach. Susan Greenhill is sometimes vocally lacking as Linda, the ex-nurse who was “a past master of the enema,” but ultimately proves affecting and affectionate. Bill Kux as her husband copes valiantly with a difficult, wordy part, but undermines himself by being too squishy in his mannerisms. In the unrewarding role of Sydney’s father, Ron Randell is bemusedly touching.

Not everyone makes the most of Bennett’s wordplay, but in light of the play’s peculiar demands and the short rehearsal time, the production is something of a minor miracle.

Kafka's Wick

Production

A Berkshire Theater Festival presentation of a play in two acts by Alan Bennett. Directed by Arthur Storch.

Crew

Set, Michael Miller; costumes, Pamela Scofield; lighting, Phil Monat; sound, James Wildman; music arranger/synths, Paul J. Ascenzo; production stage manager, Catherine Norberg; assistant stage manager, Lory Leigh Fedor; casting, Liz Woodman. Artistic director, Arthur Storch; managing director, Kate Maguire. Opened and reviewed Aug. 17, 1995, at the Berkshire Theater Festival Playhouse, Jane and Jack Fitzpatrick Mainstage; 400 seats; $ 32 top. Running time: 2 HOURS.

With

Cast: Peter Bartlett (Kafka), Steve Routman (Brod), Susan Greenhill (Linda), Ron Randell (Father), Bill Kux (Sydney), David Sabin (Hermann K).
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