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.