Dostoyevsky’s short novel, Notes from Underground of 1864, is a gripping vision of the terrors of psychological isolation and the evils that can flow from it. Often called the first existentialist novel, it’s a remarkable early unrolling of ideas that will become key in modern thought. It’s a powerful and prescient book.
Some fine talent has gone into this misguided and tedious adaptation for theater of Notes from Underground. The unnamed Man, an impoverished former government clerk with a tortured psyche, in his lonely room, recounts two personal, interwoven narratives. In one, he’s humiliated by men, in the other, he humiliates a woman — what creative clarity in that! Running through are the Man’s meditations and utterances on existence. What goes wrong in this dramatization?
For one thing, the power of the novel depends on the power of thought and for that Dostoyevsky created a highly intelligent and articulate — if rambling — narrator. Notes expresses overarching ideas, from existentialism to Nietschian hyper-individualism to the Freudian vision of the unconscious, and then some. But in the play, the transcending and provocative ideas are so trimmed they sound trite. The character of the Man is also diminished in that, while agaonized and nasty, he’s not particularly intelligent. This is not an anti-hero: this is a jerk.
The play does not draw on the inherent romanticism in Dostoyevsky’s novel: it’s too brightly conceived. The room, as if in purposeful opposition to the ideas of darkness associated with “underground,” is glaringly lit, and cluttered with mounds of frothy white cotton, supposed to suggest snow, as well as the miasma of the swamp on which St. Petersburg was built (and evidently in the Man’s mind), but net effect, the set looks like a department store the day after the Christmas sales. Bill Camp as the Man looks too well fed, too much the satisfied sensualist; he throws himself into the part with great energy and produces some subtle introspection, but eventually resorts to mannerisms that are effective once but are over-repeated.