Feature

Diary of a Madman

Recent Oscar runner-up Geoffrey Rush gives a “spellbinding, even staggering” portrayal of Aksentii Poprishchin's descent into madness.

Harvey Theater
Brooklyn Academy of Music
(718) 636-4100

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Portraying a descent into madness across two hours “requires nothing less than a virtuoso turn,” said Elisabeth Vincentelli in the New York Post. In his first American performance of the role he made his name with some 22 years ago, recent Oscar runner-up Geoffrey Rush “definitely delivers.” He has cited Daffy Duck as a partial inspiration for his portrayal of Aksentii Poprishchin, the St. Petersburg office clerk created by Nikolai Gogol for a short story composed of journal entries. Yet slapstick hilarity is but one mood that Rush must conjure as Poprishchin’s psyche gradually deteriorates. The control he has over each zigzag in emotion makes his performance “spellbinding, even staggering.”

“Rush has thrown himself into this role body and soul,” said Mark Kennedy in the Associated Press. “Reading aloud diary entries in his dingy apartment,” he initially seems just a “fussy yet poor paper-pusher” with delusions of grandeur and a crush on his boss’s daughter. Yet his Poprishchin grows more and more “hyper and frantic.” At first, the effect is purely comic. He imagines himself to be everything from a cricket to the king of Spain, and the hallucinations let Rush display “astonishing comic timing” as we watch him “mugging, pratfalling, and savoring his witticisms.” But our laughter “at the increasing preposterousness of Poprishchin’s life” gives way to chills by the third act, when his delusions finally consume him.

The story arc underscores the play’s intended effect, which is to “make us question what we find funny,” said Ben Brantley in The New York Times. As Poprishchin slips into psychosis, the audience is forced to regard its previous laughter “in a sobering shadow.” The message is pushed too hard: By the time Poprishchin is “finally taken away by the white coats,” he’s a martyr from a Sunday-school book rather than a mirror to our own slippery souls. “To find him truly scary, we have to walk into his head.” For all his skill and all his fearlessness, Rush “never provides us with the entrance.”

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