Both authors generate humor out of the casual inhumanity of the bourgeoisie, dramatizing how the farce of middle class success distorts its victors and victims.
Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. Directed and adapted by David Farr and Gísli Örn Garðarsson. Music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Staged by Vesturport Theatre and Lyric Hammersmeith Theatre. Presented by Arts Emerson. At the Paramount Center Mainstage, Boston, MA, through March 3.
Life of Riley by Alan Ayckbourn. Directed by David J. Miller. Staged by the Zeitgeist Stage Company. At the Boston Center for the Arts, Boston, MA, through March 2.
By Bill Marx.
Granted, it seems somewhat culturally perverse to meditate on Alan Ayckbourn and Franz Kafka in the same review, but seeing Vesturport Theatre and Lyric Hammersmith Theatre’s strikingly theatrical adaptation of The Metamorphosis and Zeitgeist Stage Company’s amiably amusing presentation of Life of Riley set me to thinking about how these writers train their satiric sights on the bourgeoisie. Ayckbourn leavens his lampoon of suburban ennui with a modest sentimentality. Kafka is savage toward the sadism of the philistines, though as detailed by Max Brod and other witnesses, Kafka laughed while reading his stories to others. Both authors generate humor out of the casual inhumanity of the bourgeoisie, dramatizing how the farce of middle class success distorts its victors and victims.
In other words, what price the so-called Life of Riley? Ayckbourn and Kafka chronicle how conventional well-being depends on feeding off the lives of others. This fascination with parasitism (economic and spiritual) is an integral part of modernism. The domestication of the vampiric is often a sure sign of the retrograde: Downton Abbey and other quiescent, PBS, costume soap operas about the upper crust and its know-their-place servants generally exclude the middle class, which sucks on the profitable blood of both ends of the social spectrum. Ayckbourn lacks the rich vein of art and soul that’s at stake in Chekhov and Kafka, but at its best, his humor (particularly in some of his later plays) suggests that our (illusion of?) satisfaction depends on how much we manage to take from others without giving anything in return.
In Life of Riley, Ayckbourn’s 74th play, he serves up his usual befuddled crew of alcoholic, depressed, adulterous, and self-involved Brits in the burbs. They kill time by way of amateur theatrics, cheap affairs, nasty gossip, and social climbing, though his figures of fun are slowing down with age. Mortality hangs heavy in this play, which may explain why Ayckbourn forgoes his usual extravagant theatrical contrivances. Early on we learn that George Riley, the plot’s lynchpin, is dying from cancer (it is one of those cases that occur only in plays or movies—the patient lives large until he or she drops dead). George is kept offstage over the course of the action, but he is at the center of the characters’ conversations: old flame Kathryn and hubby Colin, best friend Jack and his vain wife Tamsin, George’s estranged wife Monica (who has a new relationship), all end up sharing contradictory memories of the man.
Surrounded by neighbors hugging the average, George has at least managed to leave an impression: he has touched the lives, sexual and otherwise, of those around him. Does he represent undiluted selfish energy, a taker who leaves the impression he is a maker who gives something to others? If George serves as Ayckbourn’s pleasure principle (satyr?) put out to pasture, the sacrifice is a delicious joke—no successful dramatist has written so many sex farces that contain so little eroticism. Ayckbourn is all about our bumbling yearnings for nonexistent climaxes. Whether George’s unbelievable last hedonist fling is innocent or not is left up in the air—could it be that he really died of coitus?
Nostalgia and/or caring gestures for the happy roué provide plenty of chuckles, though this play lacks the painful darkness found in Ayckbourn’s superior scripts Private Fears in Public Places and Time of My Life (both given fine productions by Zeitgeist). Here director David Miller and cast provide skillful cheer, often appropriately curdled around the edges. Maureen Adduci does well with Kathryn’s defensive snappishness, Peter Brown whips up some funny frazzle as the out-of-it Colin, Shelley Brown handles Tamsin’s yen for victimhood with comic agility, while Victor Shopov’s Jack is a touch one-note but suitably antic as Riley’s best friend, who appears to be trying to follow in his buddy’s have-it-all footsteps.
Ayckbourn has not come close to writing a masterpiece, let alone The Metamorphosis. Still, Kafka, like the dramatist, makes the most of the everyday when it comes to bedeviling the bourgeoisie. The genius of the novella lies partly in that it drenches the fantastical in the matter-of-fact. Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into an insect, an absurd situation that Kafka handles with the minimum of theatricality because Gregor’s plight is a “logical” extension of his life. The guy has been sucked dry by his family: his deadening job as a traveling salesman maintains the home for his mother, sister, and father, who is retired. Gregor, not his violin-playing sister Greta, is the true artist of the family. His family takes advantage of his sensitivity and humanity, draining his life force once they finally get under his shell. Greta’s transformation into adult indifference somehow depends on Gregor’s demise, as if family values were a Darwinian struggle for survival.
The other part of the novella’s genius lies in Kafka’s creation of Gregor’s point of view, a dreamy realm where the human and the un-human meet. Thus the paradox of this critically acclaimed production of Metamorphosis is that it must (by necessity) leave out what makes the story so artistically wondrous in the first place in order to focus on the tale’s easier-to-handle externals, which directors/adaptors David Farr and Gísli Örn Garðarsson do with enormous visual grace and musical power, the latter coming via an effectively muted score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. The indelible images of Garðarsson (as Gregor) crawling and hopping with poetic precision from rung to rung around the upper half of the marvelous set, at one point even crashing through the floor to the living room below, are melancholic and magical. The approach invites the imagination to project a shell around Garðarsson’s lithe figure. This is a moving performance of choreographic majesty, spooky as well as heart-breaking.
Still, Kafka eschews the dramatic. Farr and Garðarsson embrace it. Kafka dispatches Gregor via an amazing sentence: “Then his head sank down without him willing it, and from his nostrils his last breath faintly flowed.” The Gregor here expires in a post-modern death scene whose near-campy sentimentality rivals the prolonged expiration of Camille. The beauty of the production’s lighting design is both a blessing and a curse, in that the dehumanization of Gregor becomes pretty (expressionist chic) rather than earthily and quietly terrifying. Worse, the adaptors flatten out the tale’s mystery, turning it into a straight political allegory, hammering home how Gregor’s death fertilizes the blossoming of the family’s middle class fortunes, piling high the references to Nazism (Gregor’s father refers to how work will make you free). There’s even a pint-size, wanna-be superman imported into the script for Greta to pant over.
The point of Metamorphosis today is not (or not only) that it alludes to the rise of Nazism and the death camps but how it points out, through a grotesque fantasy, that our comfortable Lives of Riley depend on the degradation of innocent others, human beings who are worked to the bone or end up as the collateral damage of robot drones. Kafka insists that we fatten ourselves off our spiritual betters.