Catherine Curtin and William Atherton in The Castle(Photo: Aaron Leichter)
Catherine Curtin and William Atherton
in The Castle
(Photo: Aaron Leichter)
Herr K. is the much-put-upon land surveyor at the center of The Castle. (This being a dramatization of a Kafka novel, one hesitates to call him the "hero.") He faces enormous challenges in his struggle to report to work at the eponymous castle, having to deal with bitter cold, with many layers of infuriating bureaucracy, and with the wild anti-logic that holds sway in the tortured village where he's stranded.

An even more massive challenge--that of making K. an engaging character in this baffling and cold universe--faces William Atherton, who has wisely been given the role in the Manhattan Ensemble Theater production. Understated and sly, expressive in the tiniest movements of his face, Atherton's K. firmly anchors The Castle. Even with such a strong performer in the part, however, the show is not for everyone; as adapted by MET's David Fishelson and Aaron Leichter from a rediscovered script by Kafka crony Max Brod, The Castle is a fascinating intellectual exercise but not entirely satisfying as drama.

In the first of the play's dozen scenes, K. arrives at a roadside inn, where he wants to spend the night. He had hoped to make it to the castle by nightfall but has been stymied by the snow; the innkeeper (Sean McCourt, in a deliciously hunched and vacuous performance) says they can't put him up unless he has a permit. And where do you get the permit? Why, the castle, of course. Welcome to the village, and welcome to the world of Kafka. By the end of the first episode, K. has almost been beaten up by the inexplicably infuriated villagers and has met his totally unhelpful assistants, a matching set of dithering nitwits named Jeremiah and Arthur. His great accomplishment is completing a phone call to the castle, but no one there can offer much help.

And so it goes for poor Herr K., two steps backward for every one step forward. He learns that he's to report to a fellow named Klamm, then learns that Herr Klamm does not allow himself to be approached. He beds the spitfire barmaid Frieda (Catherine Curtin), then finds himself married to her and answerable for her welfare. Soon, K. is enmeshed in this madhouse of a village and has almost forgotten why he was supposed to go to the castle in the first place; he only knows that he'll be damned if he gives up.

It's a bleakly comic story, but director Scott Schwartz and his cast thankfully keep the emphasis on the comic. When Herr K. arrives at a long-delayed meeting with Klamm's secretary, he finds a line of people waiting. The attending functionary, pestered by K.'s entreaties, says 'right this way' and leads him all the way around the stage...back to the end of the line. The play is punctuated with such rimshot moments, and Atherton reacts with funny, deadpan takes to a series of bedevilments. Raynor Scheine has a rich cameo as the town's ancient Mayor--when he yells at K. for his impertinence, his back is turned and he waves his finger at no one.

The sticking point of the play is that, in a world like Kafka's, the fundamentals of narrative form--action leading to reaction and so on--don't apply with any consistency. It is difficult as an observer, then, to invest in K.'s struggles, let alone to struggle along with him. True, the world that Schwartz and cohorts have created is rich in pleasures, from Atherton's excellent work to Howell Binkley's grim fairy tale lighting to scenic designer Anna Louizos's delicately wrought trees. And the show winds towards its conclusion with one more stellar performance, from Dan Ziskie as a castle higher-up who offers the dazed K. a long parable about a man in a very similar situation. Ziskie's presence is commanding and intense, Atherton's face rapt and patient. We in the audience are intellectually engaged, as we have been throughout, trying to piece together Kafka's puzzles--but, on an emotional level, we are barely moved.