BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW
Geoffrey Rush, a worthy Oscar contender for "The King's Speech," is a marvelous actor who can emote very naturally or eccentrically as required. A stage version of Gogol's "The Diary of a Madman" proves to be a splendid showcase for Rush's bravura side.
Possibly I would have enjoyed his performance all the more had Rush offered less of it.
Brilliantly portraying a shabby, pretentious civil servant who disintegrates into madness in 1830s Russia, Rush takes well over two lingering hours to lose his mind at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater, where "The Diary of a Madman" bowed last week for a four-week visit.
This intelligent adaptation of Gogol's Russian classic would be a sharp and poignant experience at 90 minutes, but seems overlong and even somewhat indulgent at its present length. Of course, customers who voyage out to Brooklyn to catch the show certainly will be getting plenty of Rush for their dollar.
Garbed as a skinny scarecrow with a carroty comb-over and an ever-redder nose, Rush depicts a little nobody of a clerk whose growing fantasies about his boss' pretty daughter warp into delusions that he is the long-lost heir to the Spanish throne. Misconstruing a trip to the lunatic asylum as a royal progress, the poor fool — note the clown make-up — believes his maltreatment to be curious coronation rites.
Beginning his character's descent into schizophrenia from a giddy high, a twitching and grimacing Rush is frequently funny as he scribbles malicious thoughts in his journal and nurses suspicions about his unsuspecting beloved's lap dog. Eventually he deteriorates into a pathetic wreck in a straitjacket.
Often playing directly to the audience, Rush boldly delivers a tour-de-force performance that is rather too showy for my taste but nevertheless furiously drives the story toward its bleak conclusion. Anybody who craves a lot of flamboyant acting will get it here from Rush in spades — as well as in clubs, aces and queens, culminating in his ghastly apotheosis as a king.
Some of Rush's admirable royal tricks already were featured in his award-winning "Exit the King" turn on Broadway the other season. This sense of déjà vu to the actor's portrayal might be helped by trimming the text as adapted from Gogol's story by writer David Holman, director Neil Armfield and Rush.
Armfield's staging, which originated at the Belvoir theater company of Australia, glows with an eerie beauty. Designer Catherine Martin vividly depicts a vast attic with a sharply slanted roof and brick walls in Van Gogh-like greens and reds. Mark Shelton's shadow-looming lighting design and Paul Charlier's echoing sound design heighten the atmosphere. Two musicians located in a stage box further liven up the occasion with Alan John's flavorful Russian-dressed music.
Much as the event registers as a deluxe one man attraction, Yael Stone renders spirited and distinctive performances as the protagonist's ceaselessly scurrying Finnish chambermaid, as the oblivious object of his mad affections and as a shrieking fellow inmate.
"Diary of a Madman" continues through March 12 at the Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton St., Brooklyn. Call (718) 636-4100 or visit www.bam.org.