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Review: The Undermain's 'Time in Kafka'

by Jerome Weeks 16 Mar 2012 4:50 PM

It’s the last weekend to see the Undermain Theatre’s spooky-elegant-funny Time in Kafka. Critic Jerome Weeks grapples with what’s missing in this world premiere from Len Jenkins, the playwright who brought us the delightful Port Twilight.


Martha Harms, Shannon Kearns-Simmons and Anne Beyer in the Undermain’s Time in Kafka

Dallas Morning News review

Front Row review

TheaterJones review

American Theatre magazine

I Live in Dallas review

Just what is lacking in the Undermain Theatre’s world premiere of Time in Kafka? Len Jenkins’ new play has been given a pretty fabulous production — from many of the same folks who made Jenkins’ Port Twilight such a stellar event, director Katherine Owens and her design team.

And Jenkins’ play itself is not without its pleasures — thanks to Jenkins’ genre-mixing, word-spinning, leg-pulling playfulness. Time in Kafka, after all, tracks a literature professor’s quest to find a lost Kafka manuscript, while dealing with oddball characters, film noir-ish intrigue and a dance number featuring ? and the Mysterians’ 96 Tears.  Obviously, there’s a lot in Time in Kafka that one wouldn’t normally expect in anything associated with Kafka. Just how much like Franz Kafka’s work is it?

The Dallas Morning News: “It’s more like Thomas Mann on psychedelics.” The resemblance to Mann seems to be mostly that, like Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain, much of the play’s action takes place in a European sanitarium. TheaterJones: It’s more “Kafkaesque” than truly Kafka. On the other hand, Front Row: “Len Jenkin leans on the author [Kafka] for both for subject and writing style” — presumably, this leaning does not include the un-Kafka film jokes or musical numbers. No dancing cockroaches, here.

Actually, what Time in Kafka lacks — as an evocation of/homage to/riff on Kafka, as just a fully satisfying dramatic experience — is simple enough.

It lacks dread.

As a teenager, I first encountered Kafka’s writing, oddly enough, in a horror-fantasy anthology. Not so odd, really: Dread is what people mean when they describe his works as ‘creepy’ or ‘suspenseful’ or even ‘ominously prophetic of totalitarian bureaucracies.’ Dread is one of the key emotional responses Kafka expanded and refined in modern literature.

But Kafka’s brand of dread is not the gothic variety of Poe, Lovecraft or Clive Barker. Theirs are just variations on our fear of death, mutilation and unpleasant surprises — from “Don’t open that coffin!” to “Eww, gross.” Kafka’s dread is a fear of meaninglessness amidst our ordinary lives. Hence, the dream-like, puzzle-like nature of his major works, puzzles without end, dreams with no key.

They anticipate Hitchcock films that way — the suspense surrounding an ordinary person falsely accused, caught up in inexplicable plot — but a Hitchcock film without a Hollywood solution.

A man is called to a castle for a job, but no one knows he’s coming, the job doesn’t exist and his attempts to get to the castle are repeatedly diverted. In another, a man is arrested for no charge, he’s let go but summoned for interrogation. His court appearance makes no sense, but the accusation hasn’t been resolved — and so on.

Several of Kafka’s tales do end in death — Metamorphosis, The Trial — but they could just as easily go on endlessly, timelessly. Death’s not the horror. Knowing things are wrong even as they seem quotidian, not knowing why they’re wrong, dreading you will never know why: That’s the horror, which Kafka relates in such a deadpan manner, we don’t know if he’s being funny or unsettling.

In Time in Kafka, Hitchcock is one of the few appropriate film echoes Jenkins doesn’t employ, although Strangers on a Train is possibly being evoked when Professor Jay Spellman encounters some suspicious characters in his railroad cabin on the way to an old mental clinic in Italy. (His name is one of Jenkins’ Kafka jokes — J as in K.) Spellman’s headed to the clinic because he lost his job teaching Kafka at a college that didn’t appreciate his over-erudite theories being inflicted on freshmen. Plus, he’s had a dream in which Kafka hid an unpublished manuscript somewhere in the asylum.

The odd thing is, this isn’t that odd. The lost manuscript, that is. There are ‘lost’ or abandoned works that we know about, and at his death, Kafka famously left his manuscripts with his friend Max Brod with the order to burn them. Brod chose not to, for which we’re grateful, but Kafka left several of his most important works, including The Trial and The Castle, ‘unfinished.’ So people have scoured around for clues to different versions. And Kafka did indeed visit a host of clinics, initially because he was a hypochondriac, and later because he was dying of tuberculosis. One such visit took him to the mountain-spa town of Merano, Italy.

Although Spellman’s American world seems perfectly contemporary, when he heads to the clinic (shades of The Castle), he seems to step back in time. Time in this Kafka seems to run backward. There’s a lot of wonderfully ghostly period atmosphere in the Undermain’s production, thanks to set designer John Arnone and lighting designer Steve Woods. The earlier Port Twilight was graced with a delightfully dark, knowing, pop-culture mashup from this design team, Japanese manga meets Biblical prophecy meets B-movie sci-fi. Here it’s more Old World shabby elegance (thanks to Giva Taylor’s costumes) and surreal, skeletal images (thanks to Jeffrey Franks’ projections).

The characters he meets also seem to have stepped out of a 1930s-1940s thriller, with Tony Ramirez (seated, above) playing a Sydney Greenstreet-ish book dealer, all insinuating menace and forced likability. There’s an imperious principessa (Anne Beyer, up top — a real find) and a chilly desk clerk (above, in back, Blake Hackler — who is simply the best thing in Time in Kafka, a cross between Peter Lorre and the emcee in Cabaret).

And here’s the issue. With all this atmosphere, with such a crew of suspicious characters and with all their devious complications that frustrate Spellman’s search for the lost manuscript, one expects more menace, more dread than Time in Kafka ever delivers.  It all seems like coy gestures and sly references. For that matter, Port Twilight — with all its zaniness — conveyed far more dread. Impending doom, the coming of the anti-Christ: They tend to do that.

In this respect, much of the weakness in Time in Kafka lies with Teddy Spencer, who plays Spellman. Spencer has a sweetness to him that was put to great effect in SMU’s You Never Can Tell. There, his hotel waiter was perfectly proper but ineffably helpful and charming. Like Jeeves himself, Spencer seemed to float silently in and out of situations. But as a sacked professor driven by a dream, risking madness in a madhouse, he’s disappointingly youthful and bland.

Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say the weakness lies in the show’s entire approach to Spellman. Consider if he were an older, failed scholar recently fired (and therefore, facing much slimmer employment prospects), a man suffering from a mid-life crisis, personal doubts, an academic who’d see this lost manuscript as his last chance to redeem himself and his career. You’d add some necessary desperation to Spellman.

True, Kafka’s stories have a folk-tale simplicity to them. He rarely examines (or even registers) any interior  motivations, any psychology to his people, other than his main characters. They’re all mostly types — the tradesman, the judge, the landlady. They disturb us precisely because they’re not bothered by the violent absurdity of what’s going on. They’re not going to step out of their functions to help this flailing, uncomprehending creature.

Yet Kafka’s stories are still driven by the main character’s  frustrated need — to redeem himself, free himself, to fulfill his task, to understand. It’s as if he’s fallen through a hole in normality and can’t figure out how to climb back in to where things make sense. This way, the Spellman I’ve spelled out above would experience that essential plight of Kafka’s main characters: They’re trapped.

So there would be dread. Otherwise, Spellman’s quest seems too fanciful here, too much a whim, something he could shrug off if he had to. Half the time in Time, we expect Spellman to walk away from these frustrations and obscurities. He’d deflate everything around him — all this ghostliness and cracked veneer — with the words that, appropriately enough, are never uttered in Kafka.

This is ridiculous.