Geoffrey Rush in The Diary of a Madman
(© Heidrun Lohr)
Geoffrey Rush in The Diary of a Madman
(© Heidrun Lohr)
A low-level bureaucrat's devolvement from delusion to insanity unfolds as both a gut-busting comedy and a harrowing tragedy in Diary of a Madman, now playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theatre. But the play's not just the thing here: Tony Award winner Geoffrey Rush is delivering a performance of such deft physical skill and dazzling emotional intensity that it can be called only one thing: a "must-see."

Rush, sporting a filthy dark suit and wilted cravat (the excellently conceived costumes are by Tess Schofield) and topped with bob of brittle, thinning red hair with one huge forehead curl, plays Akesentil Poprishchin, a government clerk, who lives in an attic with a leaky roof in St. Petersburg. Scenic designer Catherine Martin has rendered the room in dingy yellows, reds and greens, which, when combined with Mark Shelton's angular lighting, creates a creepy funhouse-like environment that's simultaneously expansive and claustrophobic. Alan John's almost Looney Tunes-like music and soundscape (played by Paul Cutlan and Erkki Veltheim sitting at one side of the stage) also contribute to the oddly comic atmosphere.

As the play -- adapted from Nikolai Gogol's short story by David Holman, along with the star and director Neil Armfield -- starts, Poprishchin reveals himself to be a man with dreams of grandeur and a chip on his shoulder, filled with petty complaints. He's resentful of his treatment by his landlady. In addition, Poprishchin is exceedingly disdainful of -- and even cruel to -- the sweet Finnish girl (a performance of touching sweetness and warmth from Yael Stone), who's the house's maid. Moreover, his egotism about the office -- he knows his boss is a moron and sees himself as being a favorite of his boss' boss -- knows no bounds. Theatergoers learn all of this as he writes in his diary and rants in his garret.

Rush brings the man to life with a combination of prissiness, bitchiness and hauteur, and his impeccable gift for physical comedy. (His imitations of a peacock and of a cricket are both priceless.) And yet, there's a distressing undercurrent to Poprishchin's life: he's both stalking the daughter of his boss' boss, and believes that a pair of dogs he's seen on the street are talking about him and have key knowledge about this young woman. What's astonishing is that Rush manages to make both the character's actions and his beliefs seem utterly reasonable.

Yet, there comes a point when Poprishchin snaps, and what follows jettisons the character -- and theatergoers -- into a world of tragic insanity. During this latter half of the play, Rush's work, which has been expertly guided by director Armfield, retains its physical flair and shrewd sense of humor even as it takes on a frightening gravitas. And as Poprishchin becomes increasingly removed from reality and delusion, it's difficult to not reflect on how thin the line between innocuous self-deception and genuine madness is.