In his latest play, Time In Kafka, New York-based playwright Len Jenkin leans on the author for both for subject and writing style. The Undermain Theatre production, which opened last week, is beautiful to look at, and the cavernous underground space is the perfect place to stage a story about a slightly nutty professor who goes on an absurd dream quest for a lost Franz Kafka novel in a mystical Italian sanatorium.
But the set (brilliantly designed by John Arnone) and costumes (Giva Taylor), lovely though they might be, are just superficial trappings for an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink drama that struggles mightily for mind-bending and meaningful but lands somewhere around mildly entertaining and mindless.
Professor Jay Spellman (SMU M.F.A. student Teddy Spencer) is fired from his university teaching position after delivering one too many erudite lectures about the circular nature of time in Kafka’s novels to a bunch of freshmen lit majors who are just not ready for anything more challenging than, say, Harold and the Purple Crayon. That night, Kafka, who is obviously Spellman’s number one favorite author, visits him in a dream.
Among other things, Kafka tells Spellman that he’d left an unfinished manuscript at the naturopathic clinic where he once stayed more than a century ago. Naturally, Spellman’s on the first flight out to Milan with the half-baked plan to find the novel and become the “unfireable professor.” The clunkiness of the set up is so painful that it’s a relief that it happens in a big, self-conscious hurry. When Spellman arrives at the clinic, he’s greeted by the desk clerk (Blake Hackler). Hackler is an uncanny Kafka lookalike, and amusing. But his role as narrator borders on twee, and these fourth wall-breaking moments serve little real purpose other than to let us know that Jenkin has the device down pat.
After Spellman sets off on his impetuous adventure, he’s content to let the wacky (and not so wacky, in the case of his wife) characters sweep him along. Director Katherine Owens understands Jenkin’s meandering style, which is littered with soapbox wisdom, and paces the 90 minute show well so nothing feels tedious (though one scene, involving Spellman’s wife and an absurdly obnoxious Italian stereotype named Count Fosco, is so out of left field that it could be cut entirely). Owens does not, however, manage to elicit the fine performances we’ve come to expect from an Undermain production. Jenkin didn’t help by writing a bland, passive lead, but Spencer doesn’t have the chops to overcome it. His Spellman is stiff from the start, and his descent into weirdness alongside the other patients at the Dr. Hartungen Naturopathic Clinic is unconvincing. Jessica Cavanagh, playing Spellman’s wife Diane (a thankless role), is similarly stilted.
Incidental original music, written by the Undermain’s Bruce DuBose, is wonderful; as is Undermain newcomer Rachel Werline in the small, but appropriately eerie role of Anna, a sickly young woman who plays into Spellman’s Kafka fantasies. Amidst a middling cast, she stood out as a harbinger of another place and time. Jenkin tries hard to take us on a transcendental round trip, but the whole play just feels like an overworked, over-thought Mad Lib— insert technique here, insert gratuitous curse for extra hilarity here, and so on. It’s so earnest, with its Kafkaesque surrealism, menacingly odd characters, overt symbolism, and flashy fun dance sequences. And it’s unfortunate that all the cumbersome bits of the puzzle never fall into place. Werline, along with Arnone’s beautifully atmospheric scenic design and DuBose’s music, disorients, confuses, and otherwise delights. These few elements save us from wanting to cut the ride short.