With its peculiar punctuation, clotted paragraphs that go on for pages and circular web of small, surreal incidents leading nowhere, Franz Kafka's "The Castle" may well be among the most unreadable -- and unread -- masterpieces of modern literature.

With its peculiar punctuation, clotted paragraphs that go on for pages and circular web of small, surreal incidents leading nowhere, Franz Kafka’s “The Castle” may well be among the most unreadable — and unread — masterpieces of modern literature. Maybe that’s why the Manhattan Ensemble Theater, a new Off Broadway company that specializes in staging lit classics, decided to tackle it, hoping to draw in all those who never got past the first chapters but want to add the work to their cultural vocabulary.

Unhappily, after watching the company’s 90-minute skate across the surface of the murky tome, you may come away wondering if the show’s creators themselves have read it. The production, adapted by company artistic director David Fishelson and Aaron Leichter (from a dramatization by Kafka associate Max Brod), and directed by “Bat Boy” helmer Scott Schwartz, comes across like a staging of the Cliffs Notes synopsis of the novel. The book is all mood and mystery, symbol and psychology, but there’s precious little of these in evidence onstage.

The bizarre series of incidents that beset the hapless K. in his fruitless pilgrimage to the building of the title are all dutifully represented, but in a pedestrian manner that robs them of the kind of enigmatic significance they carry in the book. Exchanges between William Atherton’s cranky K. and the folks who alternately accommodate and thwart him in his quest are reproduced accurately — but without the feverish, insistent prose enfolding them in an aura of mystery and portent they merely seem ridiculous.

Although Anna Louizos’ attractive, frosty set, featuring a central playing space inside the frame of a plastic cube, is abstract and effective, the naturalistic approach of Schwartz and his performers is risibly wrongheaded for this dreamlike work. Surrealism is reduced to silliness; existential angst becomes Three Stooges-style petulance.

Atherton’s K. appears exasperated and annoyed, not under the spell of a profound compulsion and at the mercy of obscure but powerful forces; his girlfriend Frieda, in one of the more egregiously inappropriate turns, is played by Catherine Curtin as a crazed harpy. (The actors latch on to laughs whenever possible, an understandable failing since the comic absurdities of the novel are pretty much the only elements within the grasp of the production.)

The more fluid medium of film would better accommodate the odd, shape-shifting narrative of the novel (Maximilian Schell starred in a 1968 version, and it’s definitely up David Lynch’s alley), but reproducing Kafka in the more literal medium of the theater is a long shot, and a challenge far too sophisticated for this neophyte company. (One can imagine Robert Wilson pulling it off — but some things are better left to the imagination.) What is onstage at the Manhattan Ensemble Theater is not a meditation on life’s frustrating meaninglessness but meaninglessness itself.

The Castle

Manhattan Ensemble Theater; 139 seats; $40 top

Production

A Manhattan Ensemble Theater presentation of a play in one act dramatized by Max Brod and adapted by David Fishelson and Aaron Leichter from the novel by Franz Kafka. Directed by Scott Schwartz.

Creative

Sets, Anna Louizos; costumes, Miguel Angel Huidor; lighting, Howell Binkley; music, John Angier; sound, John Weston; production stage manager, Charles M. Turner III. Artistic director, Fishelson. Opened Jan. 17, 2002. Reviewed Jan. 15. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.

Cast

K - William Atherton
Barnabas - E.J. Carroll
Frieda - Catherine Curtin
Olga - Mireille Enos
Innkeeper's Wife - Gina Farrell
Momus/Innkeeper - Sean McCourt
Jeremiah- Jim Parsons
Teacher - Steven Rosen
Mayor/Gatekeeper - Raynor Scheine
Arthur - Grant James Varjas
Erlanger/Manor Innkeeper - Dan Ziskie
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