City Paper is not for tourists
While most of the city’s theaters are up to their ears in ghosts of past, present, and future, Washington Shakespeare Company is happily engaged in chasing holiday sentiment away with Alan Bennett’s heady little intellectual farce, Kafka’s Dick. Plenty of ghosts at Clark Street Playhouse, too, but ones engaged in decidedly nontreacly pursuits involving what Bennett refers to as “that posthumous cocktail party: posterity.” The playwright’s conceit is that a long-dead Franz Kafka (Christopher Henley with a riot of self-deprecating tics) and his buddy Max Brod (Bruce Alan Rauscher in Nathan Lane–ish overdrive) turn up in present-day Britain, with Kafka entirely unaware that he’s now regarded as one of the leading lights of 20th-century literature. The author of Metamorphosis had extracted a promise from Max to burn all his manuscripts after his death, but Max did nothing of the sort, and in fact, ended up writing the definitive biography of his friend. Keeping that fact from the swooningly morose, anonymity-craving Kafka proves a, um, trial, however, as the two of them—and shortly, Kafka’s parents as well—have materialized in the bookshelf-lined house of a Kafka scholar (the amusingly put-upon John Geoffrion). This sounds like the sort of notion that, decades ago, might have powered one of Bennett’s sketches for Beyond the Fringe, but the playwright, who has more recently been identified with less raucous looks at history (The History Boys, The Madness of King George III) turns it into an uproarious, quasi-Stoppardian literary farce. Replete with puns, a scantily-clad-but-not-as-dim-as-she-appears nurse (Adrienne Nelson), a bit of time travel, and an afterlife pictured as a sort of intellectual vaudeville act, the evening is a smartly produced hoot at the Clark Street Playhouse. Designer Hannah J. Crowell has created her set entirely on diagonals—a checkerboard floor backed by a book-crammed house turned upside down. Director Joe Banno sets the characters to racing around, brightly spouting epigrams about the “Czech Chekhov,” arguing whether Kafka’s unsupportive father (a blustering Ian Armstrong) got a fair shake from history, and generally deconstructing the intrusive art of biography and its impact on the reputation of artists. Sound intimidating? Well, in performance, it’s such a breeze that if laughter is what you’re after this holiday season, you’d be well-advised to forget the Dickens and go straight for the Dick.