Richard Crawford in Journey to the End of the Night
(© Piotr Redlinski)
Richard Crawford in Journey to the End of the Night
(© Piotr Redlinski)
French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline was one of the more influential writers of the 20th Century, affecting the works of authors such as William Burroughs, Jean Genet, Henry Miller, Jean Paul Sartre, and Charles Bukowski. However, his reputation has languished due to his virulently anti-Semitic writings during World War II and suspicions that he collaborated with the Nazis. The Flying Machine's uneven production of Jason Lindner's Journey to the End of the Night, currently at the Gene Frankel Theater, adapts Céline's most famous novel while also exploring the controversy that adversely affected his life and position in literary history.

This solo play is performed by Richard Crawford, who portrays both a crotchety professor type talking directly to the audience about Céline, and Journey to the End of the Night's anti-hero, Bardamu (as well as miscellaneous roles from the novel). Blackouts and changes in lighting and costume pieces indicate the shifts between the two narrative strands; unfortunately, these transitions often feel forced, and director Joshua Carlebach needs to do something more to make them seem less awkward.

The Journey segments are the more engaging parts of the show. They focus on Bardamu's uneasy friendship with Robinson, whom he first meets while they are both serving in the French army during World War I. The two continue to run into each other in France, Africa, and the United States, while becoming entangled in theft, a murder plot, and personal betrayals. Neither of the men are particularly admirable, but their misadventures are often amusing and described in vivid and evocative language. As a writer, Céline was noteworthy for pushing the envelope in regards to his uncompromising and lurid depiction of sex, war, and bodily trauma. His bleak outlook on life and humanity permeates the novel, and is well expressed in this adaptation.

The show's other narrator -- whose true identity is eventually revealed late in the play -- is more problematically depicted. At first, he appears to be a critic of Céline, describing Journey as "an abhorrent bit of nasty smut." He babbles on about a ballet that Céline wrote, and briefly addresses whether or not Céline's more questionable remarks should be seen as either satire or an elaborate joke. In addition, he is frequently interrupted by phone calls with no one on the line, and an insistent knocking at the door. However, these latter devices don't have much of a payoff.

Crawford has a vibrant presence, and brings out the play's humor. Unfortunately, his portrayals of his two main characters are too similar, even if they're at least visually distinguishable by the fact that Bardamu always wears a hat. The actor is also constrained by being behind a desk, and the piece might flow better had he been allowed to move around a bit.

The play intentionally does not resolve the conflicted emotions raised by this controversial author -- made vivid by a lengthy anti-Semitic screed within the show -- but it may inspire interest in Céline's work. Audience members can then make their own judgments about the writer's merits and whether or not history has been too unkind to him.