Nothing says disorientation like lost luggage. Gideon Lester’s stage adaptation of Franz Kafka’s unfinished first novel, which was written in 1913 and published after his death, begins with displaced baggage and ends with lost identity. But what’s missing in between is a dramatic focus in this dark and dull production staged and designed by Dominique Serrand, a.d. of Minneapolis’ Theater de la Jeune Lune, winner of this year’s regional theater Tony Award.
Never having set foot in America didn’t stop the young Kafka from creating a picaresque story of a naive young man’s journey into the New World. Though influenced by Dickens and Twain, this story’s hero is no Huckleberry Copperfield. As played on stage by Nathan Keepers, this Kafka Kandide is a bland personality with no character, not to mention identity, to lose.
Kafka’s wandering 17-year-old hero, Karl, has disappeared before the play’s first scene, which is set on the ship that takes him from his native Prague to these strange shores. After having an affair with a maid, he is packed off by his parents to the U.S., where he is rejected by a series of other protectors, including a rich uncle (Will LeBow) and a bosomy, blustery head cook (Steven Epp).
But Karl is not so much an innocent victim as he is an ill-informed bore. The show’s dreary narrator (Sarah Agnew) seems depressed by the hero’s plight even before it begins.
Karl does not know the language, customs or behavior of this new land, other than to have an inkling that Americans aren’t partial to foreigners despite — or perhaps because of — its immigrant history. (Kafka’s Statue of Liberty wields a sword instead of a torch.) Karl attempts to assimilate to his surroundings as his travels take him from the mother ship to his uncle’s privileged world to a grand hotel and to a traveling theatrical troupe that finally seems to give him safe refuge.
But this rambling, episodic and fantastical journey has little dramatic momentum. Serrand enlivens these disjointed and surreal scenes with occasional bursts of theatrical flair, such as projections, song and extravagant playing, as well as theatrical nods to Brecht (a Mother Courage-inspired trailer) and Beckett (a woman so hugely fat she is immobile). But it is not enough to enliven this long, often tedious voyage.
Perhaps a young Bill Irwin could have invested Karl with some physical clowning to entice an aud. But Keepers is amiable at best, and even pleasant traveling companions can get on your nerves after a while.
As if to make up for the lack of character pizzazz, the ensemble of players from both ART and Theater de la Jeune Lune companies take extravagant measures to highlight the story’s series of grotesque characters, but it only heightens the desperation.
In the end, Karl peels off his last vestige of self and boards a train that will complete his final transformation to invisibility in America. It’s a moment that is suddenly, oddly affecting. But instead of it being a tragic human loss, it’s simply a chilling stop after a long road trip to nowhere.