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STAGE REVIEW

Laugh-out-loud Kafka?

The ART finds humor in 'Amerika,' if not dramatic depth

CAMBRIDGE -- The novels and stories of Franz Kafka are many things, but dramatic is not one of them, though that hasn't stopped artists from Mikhail Baryshnikov to Orson Welles from trying to make the Czech writer's strange characters come to life onstage and on-screen.

The latest to try his hand is Gideon Lester, the associate artistic director at the American Repertory Theatre, with considerable help from his friends at the ART and at the Theatre de la Jeune Lune, the company based in Minneapolis that collaborated on ''The Miser" last season and that won this year's Tony Award for a regional theater.

Lester and director-designer Dominique Serrand, cofounder of Jeune Lune, have distilled Kafka's unfinished first novel, ''Amerika," about a young man who comes to America after he was banished by his parents for having an affair with the maid. They've distilled it about as well as one could imagine, and the actors from both companies are a hoot to watch.

But despite the fine acting and Serrand's grab bag of visual treats, there is still the fact that Kafka is not that dramatic. Kafkaesque is one thing. ''Waiting for Godot" is unimaginable without Kafka's having first faced the void. Pinter's more political take on individuals who are crushed by forces outside their control also needed Kafka to blaze the trail.

And what is Martin McDonagh's current Broadway play ''The Pillowman" if not a direct descendant of ''The Trial"?

But Kafka wasn't writing for the stage. His characters have no significant arc. There is the degradation of the central figure, whose helplessness and victimization is relentless. It's Dickens, whom Kafka loved, without the uplift, Dostoevsky without any hope of salvation.

Kafka's work is leavened with humor, and Lester's adaptation has plenty of that. Steven Epp of Jeune Lune (he played the title role in ''The Miser") and Will LeBow of the ART go at their assortment of characters as if they're in some comedy-slam contest. (I'd rule for LeBow on the basis of his Moe Howard getup late in the game.) The other three ART men -- Remo Airaldi, Thomas Derrah, and Jeremy Geidt -- add their usual flourishes, though the spotlight throughout is on Nathan Keepers as Karl Rossmann, the 16-year-old protagonist.

Karl's is a picaresque journey through the wilds of early 20th-century America and the immigrant experience. Kafka had never set foot in America, and the land he describes has San Francisco on the East Coast and a bridge that connects Boston and New York. You could say that geography wasn't his strong suit, but Kafka was not trying to be literal.

As Keepers sets out on this journey, he brings a Chaplinesque quality to Karl's persona, while Sarah Agnew beautifully provides sad commentary as the narrator. Keepers plays straight man to whomever he's with, and his body language is lithe and imaginative. But as the evening proceeds, there's too much Pee-Wee Herman dweebishness and too little physical comedy.

Admittedly, Kafka didn't give him that much to work with. But it isn't as if Lester is a slave to what Kafka has written. Delamarche, a cartoonish rogue in the book, is more Karl's nemesis here, a murderer (albeit one with a French accent that is more Pépé Le Pew than Pépé Le Moko). While Kafka's ending is ambiguous, Lester's interpretation is particularly dark.

Overall, the playwright keeps things from bogging down. One of the most tedious parts of the book, Karl's interrogation by the head waiter and head porter at a hotel where he takes a job, is here one of the liveliest, thanks to LeBow's and Airaldi's deftness with Lester's words.

As director and designer, Serrand also enlivens the proceedings. The black and steely-gray set is relatively spare, but Serrand keeps the 2 3/4 hour production nicely paced, with sets on wheels and imaginative cinematic projections on any number of animate and inanimate surfaces.

When the momentum stalls, however, the play feels flat. The production smartly conveys Kafka's main theme -- the crushing nature of the modern world -- but it isn't emotionally engaging. For all the interesting staging, it feels like ''Amerika" the dutiful, rather than a stirring existential anthem.

Ed Siegel can be reached at siegel@globe.com.

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