Journey to the End of the Night
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 13, 2008
If you love theatre that challenges your assumptions, stimulates the mind and the senses, and immerses you in a world you've never even imagined (let alone entered), then I urge you right now to get a ticket for The Flying Machine's Journey to the End of the Night. This extraordinary show, the result of masterful collaboration among some of indie theater's most excellent artists, is a unique, mind-blowing event. It may wind up being the most memorable theatre piece of the year. (I know, it's only January.)
It is staged in the below-ground space at the Gene Frankel Theatre, and I suspect that director Joshua Carlebach looked hard to find just the right environment for this story, which takes place in some kind of cellar (hell, perhaps?): the low ceiling, the black black darkness, and the vaguely haunted ambience of an old East Village brownstone suit and inform this piece. The design of Journey to the End of the Night is triumphant in every department, from Anna Kiraly's set, which is simultaneously minimalist and crowded, to Olivera Gajic's simple but versatile costume design for lone actor Richard Crawford, to Zach Williamson's milieu-setting sound, to (most notably!) Anjeanette Stokes's monumentally crafted lighting design, which quite literally pulls the play's single character in and out of the shadowy depths of his own fevered imagination.
So who is this character? The play is about Louis-Ferdinand Celine, the pseudonymous author (real name: Louis-Ferdinand Destouches) of the book of the play's title, as well as many others; apart from Journey, perhaps his best-known and certainly his most controversial writings are a series of pamphlets from the late 1930s that are characterized by a gross, perverse anti-Semitism that, it is said, went beyond even that of the Nazis. Throughout the play, Celine stubbornly insists—as he apparently did in real life—that the pamphlets were a satire, or a kind of post-modern joke. One of the many significant questions that Jason Lindner, the play's writer, leaves the audience with is whether that can be true. Can an artist (or, indeed, anyone) ever separate themselves from what they've made?
The key to Lindner's ingenious script is the notion that Celine himself is something made—an alter ego made animate for our edification. Is it Celine or Destouches in the chair before us? I will leave that for you to decide after you've seen Journey.
How do I describe the structure of the play? A salon, perhaps, or a meeting; or maybe more accurately a slightly one-sided tribunal: Celine is defendant and defender; we are the judge. (Can we judge?—another of the play's provocative, unanswered questions.) Celine explains, or tries to explain, much of what he did in his life; and interspersed with his engaging (if overly defensive) conversation are flashbacks to the actual novel Journey to the End of the Night, vignettes from this dark and bitterly comic descent into despair in which the protagonist, Bardamu, experiences one hellish encounter after another with war, disease, poverty, injustice, and death.
Richard Crawford portrays Celine and Bardamu vividly and precisely: it's an unforgettable performance that entices us with its dexterity and wit. These characters, each in his way so empty of morality or compassion, are distressingly likeable—sympathetic, almost. Yet Crawford keeps them sufficiently remote that we are never able to stop turning over in our minds what they're doing and saying; we're repelled by them even as we laugh with them. No small achievement.
Carlebach's direction is similarly remarkable, immersing us in the hazy netherworld of these conjurations of Lindner and Destouches. When the play was over, I felt more like I was awakening from an eerie dream than emerging from a theatre. It's hard to imagine someone just passively watching this piece; there's a potency to this experience that's singular, even a little bit scary. I wasn't sure if what I thought about some of the subjects raised in it was the same afterward as it had been before.
The Flying Machine have accomplished something exceptional with Journey to the End of the Night, and I hope that avid theatre-goers will take it in before it disappears, all too soon, in just a few weeks.