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Notes from Underground

Bill Camp and Robert Woodruff's coruscating adaptation of Dostoyevsky's novella is a two-hour thrill ride into the realm of self-loathing. logo
Bill Camp in Notes from Underground
(© Joan Marcus)
If you've ever experienced so much as a moment's unease in a social situation, you owe it to yourself to see Bill Camp in his and director Robert Woodruff's coruscating adaptation of Dostoevsky's 1864 novella Notes from Underground at Yale Rep. It's a two-hour thrill ride into the realm of self-loathing -- a brilliant study of the perverse impulses the make even the sanest of us occasionally behave counterproductively in our quest for validation and approval.

Camp's "Man," a 40-year-old former civil servant gone semi-feral, doesn't rate high on the sanity spectrum. Holed up in a trashed office adrift in falling snow, he settles in for a long rant in front of a computer camera. He won't face us in the audience (lit like him, as if in complicity); however, his closeup, projected onto the rear wall, demands intimacy. Man positively froths and drools in his zeal to get his point across -- that, romantic notions to the contrary, humans are not instinctively drawn to virtue.

Admittedly, he is not a fun companion. After 15 minutes or so of such fulminating, it's reasonable to wonder where he's going with all this: Are we locked into a lecture by a madman? And then he decides to dredge up one particularly oppressive memory, and, as he reenacts it, the real drama begins. Already a loner at 24, Man finds himself nonetheless hungry for company and, on a whim, invites himself to dinner with a group of former schoolfellows he has never had much use for. They neglect to mention that the appointment has been pushed back an hour, and so he sits alone in the fancy restaurant, grinning defensively, feigning an air of habitual bonhomie.

These moments are so delicious, and Camp's skill in capturing the disjunct between surface and inner reality so superb, you wish they'd never end. Better yet, they just keep amping up, as his sophisticated acquaintances -- whose chummy-unto-sensual interactions are projected overhead -- catch on to the cur in their midst. Meanwhile, Man, in his naked need to be admired, acts ever more abominably, eventually driving them away.

More bad behavior is in store, and a prostitute (touching Merritt Janson) bears the brunt of it. Again, warring impulses within Man impede his chance at the connection he so clearly craves. One minute, he's prancing on his toes, a minuet master desperate to please; the next, he's ripping into her fragile dreams -- and, inevitably, his own.

In Woodruff's staging, as centuries melt, Man is very much of his time, yet equally grounded in ours. He is exasperating, perplexing, quite often comic, and not going away any time soon.


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