NEW YORK, Jan. 31 (UPI) -- The American premiere of Max Brod's dramatization of Franz Kafka's nightmarish novel, "The Castle," ranks as one of the highlights of the off-Broadway season as directed by hot young director Scott Schwartz.
Schwartz established himself as a talent to watch last season when he directed two hit off-Broadway musicals, "Bat Boy" and Jonathan Larson's autobiographical "tick, tick...BOOM!" His ability to handle the dark humor in these works with sensitivity recommended him to David Fishelson, artistic director of the new Manhattan Ensemble Theater, when he was looking for a director for "The Castle."
MET's production, which opens its first full season, is a new English translation from the original German of the stage version by Brod. He was Kafka's close friend, editor and estate executor who ignored the Austrian novelist's wishes that his manuscripts be destroyed after his death in 1924. "The Castle," Kafka's third and final novel was unfinished and was not published until 1926.
Once thought to have been lost, Brod's dramatization of "The Castle" was discovered by Ingmar Bergman, who staged it in Sweden in 1953, and there was a production in Israel in 1970 by the Habimah theater group. A film adaptation of "The Castle" in English starring Maximilian Schell was released in 1968.
Fishelson and translator Aaron Leichter, MET's dramaturge, have adapted the surreal play, presenting it in 12 scenes in a 90-minute intermissionless production. It adheres closely to Brod's script about a land surveyor known only as "K" who has been hired to work at a sinister hilltop castle to which he never gains admission, except for the final scene.
In this scene, Fishelson and Leichter let K get permission to live in the village surrounding the castle. This is a minor triumph in his battle against the faceless bureaucracy in the castle above and suggests he may wish to stay and continue his struggle. Brod simply ended his play with K's death.
Kafka certainly set out to satirize the excess of befuddling rules and paperwork that is the natural product of bureaucracy of any sort, especially the one that had built up over the centuries in the sprawling Austro-Hungarian empire.
Who heads the faceless bureaucracy at The Castle, if it even exists, is never revealed, though it doesn't seem to be a member of royalty or the nobility but just a faceless bureau that sends autocratic emissaries to the village to carry out its work.
K finds nothing but obstacles bound up in red tape in his way as he tries to find out what his job will be, and the strictly regimented villagers seem united in their determination to keep him in the dark.
Playing the role of K with its spectrum of emotions ranging from mere frustration to violent outrage is William Atherton, a splendid actor who has not been seen on the New York stage since 1983 in the Broadway production of "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial." Since then he has devoted his career to films and is best known for his roles in "Ghostbusters" and "Die Hard."
Atherton is perfect for the role. His chiseled face is a transparent screen for the depiction of edgy emotion over which he has exquisite control as an actor. His K is not a man without humor, blind to the irony of his desperate situation, but a very real human who gradually succumbs to the untenable attacks on his pride, ambition and unwillingness to compromise his sense of fair treatment to settle for anything less than he deems is owing him as a professional.
Atherton and an outstanding supporting cast is only part of what makes this production a magical theater experience. Anna Louizos' set, which is not extravagant by off-Broadway standards, is a wonderfully evocative vision of the chilling rules and regulations that box K in and almost prevent him from getting any recognition from the powers that be at The Castle.
As the focus of action on a small stage, Louizos has created a movable, clear plastic cube surrounded by a wintry woods through which snow occasionally filters. It can be transformed into a village inn or a bureaucrat's office with the addition of a few pieces of furniture without disturbing the essence of it chilling beauty, icily lit by Howell Binkley.
Miguel Angel Huidor's costumes effectively suggest the early part of the 20th century and John Angier has composed some haunting background music, including some heavenly sounding interludes that seem to point to a spiritual element in K's quest. But if The Castle is a metaphor for heaven, or even for God, director Schwartz has not seen fit to impose this possibility on the otherwise pointless play.
Catherine Curtin, who won acclaim recently for her Janis Joplin in off-Broadway's "Love, Janis," is impressive for the spontaneity of her rambunctious barmaid, Frieda, who is only too willing to hop into bed with K. Sean McCourt is excellent as the simple-minded innkeeper with a mean streak in his slack backbone, and Gina Farrell is suitably nasty as his harridan wife.
Particularly humorous are the twin assistants assigned to K, played by E.J. Carroll and Jim Parsons as knicker-wearing schoolboys bent on irritating their master with their sassy remarks. Raynor Scheine is hatefully odious as the village mayor, and other villagers are well played by Miereille Enos, Steven Rosen, and Dan Ziskie, as a formally dressed Castle emissary.
"The Castle" is scheduled to run through Feb. 17, to be followed by MET's production of "The Golem" starring Robert Prosky.