Notes from Underground

Bill Camp is superb in this coruscating adaptation of the Dostoevsky novella.

Bill Camp in Notes from Underground
(© Joan Marcus)
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, now arriving at Theatre for a New Audience by way of La Jolla Playhouse and, originally, Yale Rep. It’s a two-hour thrill ride into the realm of self-loathing: a brilliant study of the perverse impulses that 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 avoids eye contact with the audience; 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.

After fifteen 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 (“like a bad song that won’t go away”) and, as he reenacts it, the real drama begins.

Already a loner at 24 — “gloomy, disorderly, and solitary to the point of savagery” — 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 and 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 (a 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 modernist, media-enhanced staging, centuries melt, and Man — whom later existentialists heralded as the first antihero — is very much of his time, yet equally grounded in ours. He is exasperating, perplexing, and quite often comic, and he’s not going away any time soon.